Wednesday, February 29, 2012

First sap!

While we tapped some trees on Saturday, three days passed before I got a chance to check the buckets. So after finishing barn chores yesterday morning, I took the dogs for a walk on our usual loop, which passes through the woods where we're tapping.

As I walked towards the buckets I wasn't sure what to expect. Would there be any sap? Did we even tap the right trees? The temperature had been below zero the last few days, so I told myself, "don't be disappointed."

I lifted the first lid and let out a loud whoop -- sap!

There was only about 4" of accumulated sap on the bottom of the bucket, and approximately 2" of it was frozen solid, but it was maple sap all the same.

I emptied all four buckets -- the first two much fuller than the buckets on the old tree that we'd double tapped (I think we're going to move one of the spiles to another younger tree) -- and dragged the slushy sap home using a sled I'd expropriated from the kids.

I left it to fully melt and then measured it -- approximately 2.5 litres! I felt a bit silly being this excited about our first harvest as this amount of sap will yield only about 1/4 cup of finished syrup, but I was giddy. Ridiculously so.

Until I took Jack to hockey last night. It seems everyone around here is tapping trees. The first woman I talked to already has 300 spiles in, and hopes to tap 100 more. She said they'd max out their taps at 500 trees as that's about all they could handle this year.

I was more than a little sheepish when I told her that we'd tapped just four trees, because we thought that was all we could handle this year. I started thinking, maybe we should tap some more -- we could do at least 10, right? Or 15? Or...

Then I caught myself doing that thing that I always do. I compare myself to what other people are up to, and I never seem to measure up. Folks are always 'further ahead' on their homesteads and farms, doing more, achieving more, and I often feel like I'm just dabbling, or when I'm really hard on myself, I feel like a fraud. I'm not a particularly competitive person and yet I always seem to be keeping score.

Since moving to the farm I've become horribly impatient. I want to do it all -- grow food, raise animals, live the "good life" in our ultimate efforts to become more self-reliant -- right now! But I too often forget (or ignore) that it's the journey that matters, not the destination.

I'm learning most of these skills from scratch, while raising two kids and working three jobs. I know I should cut myself some slack, but it's hard. I waffle between feeling like an underachiever and feeling totally burnt out and exhausted.

What we're doing is enough. I'm enough. And even if we only harvest enough sap to make one bottle of syrup, it's one more bottle of homegrown goodness than we had last year.

So in the spirit of celebrating another first, before the kids left for school this morning I passed around a tiny sherry glass and we each took a sip of this spring tonic.

It was a sweet way to start a new day and a new season. It was enough.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Tapping the trees

Saturday marked our first time tapping the trees in 'the old sugar bush'. To get there you must first walk through the big hayfield towards the south-east corner of our farm, a crossing made easier by our snowshoes, which have had little use in this wet but mild winter.

It was my favourite kind of winter day, cold but sunny, with a healthy base of snow (thanks to Friday's storm), which felt dense and solid under our footfalls. We walked single file through the outskirts of the forest stand, with its mix of young maples, evergreens and sumac.

The cedars gave way to the oak trees and then rounding a corner we passed into the part of the woods populated by some sugar maples. We had a hazy sense of which trees were maples, but without any leaves we couldn't be 100% sure.

While we'd meant to mark the trees last fall, we didn't, and the monochromatic winter forest is markedly different from its green and leafy warm weather persona -- it's more quiet and reserved.

Undeterred, or just plain stubborn, we located two of the trees that we'd eye-marked last weekend based on what we thought was classic maple bark design, and decided we'd hang just two buckets here. I've come to appreciate that book learning can only take you so far; the true teachable moments come from experience.

We drilled the first spile...

...and hung the first bucket.

The lid barely had time to close before the kids clammered around, looking to see the first sap flow. But the trees were still sleeping on this cold morning.

While the kids and Lucas searched for suitable trees on the other side of the trail (to hedge our bets in case we'd misidentified the first two) I remembered one special maple that I'd found last summer .

I know so little of the history of our farmstead, so when I first learned about 'the old sugar bush' during an unexpected visit last August from a woman who told me she was "born here 70 years ago", I checked the sugar maple tree trunks for some evidence of their productive past.

I found only one spile scar. At the time I was disappointed, but this day it was enough.

I used that same scar as a map (of sorts) to show us where to hang two more buckets

Nature has much to teach us if we open our eyes and look -- with a little help from those that came before us.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Say 'no' to Monsanto seeds

Blogger Erin at "garden now -- think later!" just posted a link to this list of seeds owned by Seminis/Monsanto, which includes everything from beans to watermelon. Every gardener, farmer and eater needs to know about this list.

Monsanto, the world's largest seed and biotechnology company, has a long evil history of terrorizing food growers and seed savers in the company's effort to control the global seed market.*

Whoever controls the seeds, controls the food. Our food.

So before you order your spring seeds, check out this list. Then source from seed companies that sell only Monsanto-free seeds and stay away from these varieties. Seeds should be the building blocks for a robust and healthy food system, not profit-making corporate commodities.

Sourcing heirloom and open-pollinating varieties of seeds is a simple but powerful way to challenge food dictators and biopirates and reclaim food democracy. Put your money where your mouth is. Source, grow and save patent-free, chemical-free, GE-free seeds. Join this grassroots revolution and just say "no" to Monsanto.

"It is not inevitable that corporations will control our lives and rule the world.
We have a real possibility to shape our own futures.
We have an ecological and social duty to ensure that the food that nourishes us is not a stolen harvest."

~ Vandana Shiva, author of "Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply"

* For a great read on why to keep Monsanto out of your veggie patch, visit "A Garden for the House" here.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Yarn along -- Ella's Luuk hat (cont.)

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

I'm still working on Ella's Luuk hat. I would have finished it by now if I had read the pattern, or at least read the pattern correctly for the size that I'm knitting.

It's an easy and fun knit and I'm hoping to have it done before the end of the week so I can start Jack's birthday socks. No, they're not even on the needles yet, but I showed Jack the yarn (Patons Stretch Socks in Pumpkin Spice Jacquard) and he's happy to wait for them as he's still wearing and enjoying last year's pair.

As for reading: In addition to mothering, working and homesteading, I'm also studying to be a yoga teacher. (I'm halfway through a 225-hour teacher training program at Wavelengths Yoga Studio in Norwood, Ont.) While it sounds like one more pursuit in an already-too busy life (and in some respects, it probably is), to me it's a natural progression in a path of study and practice that helps me become more focused, mindful and grounded.

Simply put, yoga makes me a better human being.

Some people do therapy; I do yoga. And this teacher training is allowing me to go deeper in this life's work, and eventually share this learning with others -- in particular kids and teenagers. So one of the books that is currently on my night table is "Health, Healing and Beyond" by T.K.V. Desikachar, son of T. Krishnamacharya, one of the greatest modern-day teachers of yoga. It's a fascinating read and one that helps me deal with my everyday with a bit more clarity, grace and integrity. Well, some days at least.

The bookish farmer: "Maple Sugar" by Tim Herd

Folks who know the history of our farm often talk fondly about 'the old sugar bush.' Today when we walk through that part of the woods, the stand is largely made up of very, very old and very young maples. But like the Goldilocks story, there are some maples that are 'just right' -- just right for tapping, that is.

We're big maple syrup fans and we love its woodsy sweetness on -- and in -- everything from pancakes to baked goods and even coffee. Other than honey (also a family favourite!) and agave nectar, it's the only sweetener that occurs naturally in a liquid state. It turns out that our reverence for this sweet treat is many, many, many generations old. While its exact origin is unknown, Native Americans have many legends about the discovery and early usage of maple sap.

One tells of the Earth Mother, Kokomis, who made the first maple syrup and allowed it to pour freely from the trees. Her grandson Manabush, who worried that if the syrup could be obtained so easily people would become lazy, climbed to the top of the maple tree and showered it with water, thus diluting the syrup to sap.

This is just one of the fascinating pieces of maple lore that I learned reading Tim Herd's book, Maple Sugar.

While the book is small in size (144 pages and measuring 6.5" x 7.5", only a bit bigger than a CD case), it's packed full of interesting tidbits about the history, early sugaring methods and uses of maple syrup.

There's also a chapter on tree identification, with notes on the top six (out of 13) species tapped by hobbyists, and a fascinating overview of the four seasons of the sugar bush. Amateur botanists and dendrologists will appreciate the brief, but interesting, chapter on the "Secret Life of Trees."

Rounding out the book is a chapter on the how tos of commercial maple syrup production, with gorgeous photos of rustic sugar shacks housing modern-day evaporators (interesting juxtaposition, I'd say).

The second-to-last chapter is geared for the Do-it-yourself and provides step-by-step instructions on identifying trees, finding equipment, tapping and of course, sugaring. The last chapter provides a number of simple recipes that showcase this springtime bounty.

Despite the book's small size (it's more a primer than manual), it was the DIY chapter that really caught my eye, especially the suggestion that each tap on a healthy tree may produce 10 gallons of sap (or more) during the month-long season. As it takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup (1 U.S. gallon = 3.785 litres), just four tapped trees (one stile per tree) could potentially keep our family in delicious maple syrup for a few months!

Photo from 2010 visit to Sandy Flat Sugar Bush in Warkworth, Ont.

That's what makes this book so inspiring -- it makes you want to run out and start tapping trees right now! (Like I need more inspiration -- it's more hours in the day that I need.)

I approached the idea with Lucas and while he usually provides a moderating effect on all my crazy "we could do this!" suggestions, he, too, loved the idea.

So last week we took the kids for a walk through the 'old sugar bush' and marked a few trees. (Note to self: this is much easier to do when the leaves are on the trees!) Tomorrow I'll go to our local farm supply store to pick up a few metal spiles and buckets, and then I'll go through our stockpile of food-grade buckets in the barn and find (and sterilize) several for collecting the sap. We're still trying to find some kind of container to boil down the sap (Herd suggests a large shallow pan, though if anyone has an extra cast iron cauldron kicking around, drop me an email!), but we've agreed that we're going to do this old-school, over an open fire. That's the plan, at least.

Local farming friends tell us the sap is already flowing and many commercial-scale Ontario producers kick off the beginning of maple syrup season with a "First Tapping" ceremony this weekend. While we usually mark the arrival of spring with a visit to a local sugar bush, this year we're excited to be starting a new tradition deeply rooted in our backyard.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Yarn along -- New Luuk hat for Ella

It's been ages since I've participated in a Yarn Along (see Ginny over at Small Things if you'd like to join along), and I had a hat for Ella that I was going to share today, but as soon as I finished it, I decided I didn't like it. Not one bit. She wasn't too pleased with it either. It was a bit tight and plain and just not "Ella" enough. So I frogged it, before I even took a photograph.

I love knitting hats for the kids. Each is a small project, so it works up quickly and as they both enjoy wearing hand-knit items (it's even a source of pride as they tell people, "my mum made me this!"), they get good use out of them. To me, a hat, like anything I create with my own hands, is a token of my love for them. But it's important that we all like the finished product.

I really like this one...

And I think Jack looks so smart in his WW2 watchman's cap:

So while it was a drag to unroll an entire hat, I'm happy I did. I've already picked out a new pattern for Ella: the Luuk hat from Raverly. I think it'll look really sweet in a variegated pink Cascade 220 wool that I've been stashing.

As for reading, I just received another shipment of books from publishing house Thomas Allen & Son for my new The Bookish Farmer feature:

I think this'll keep me busy. But then again, maybe I won't have much time for reading over the next few days. It's Jack's birthday next week (his 10th, no less!) and I just picked up some yarn for another pair of birthday socks. (Yes, I am the ultimate last-minute knitter.) It was May before he got his last pair of birthday socks -- I'm hoping I can crank these out before the end of April!

What are you creating and/or reading right now?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Cookie love

Happy Valentine's Day! Wishing you a day -- and a life -- filled with love. xo

Monday, February 13, 2012

Chick shopping

The hens are getting a bit long in the tooth, or should I say beak. Our first chickens (of which we still have a few) were some one- and two-year old birds that we bought in the fall of 2008 from a woman who was downsizing. We then ordered about two dozen (maybe more) day-old chicks the following spring.

Since then, due to natural and not-so-natural losses (we had a LOT of fox trouble this year, which I wanted to address before adding any more birds to our farm), we're down to 15 hens and one rooster.

These ladies are eating as much as always, but are providing one, maybe two eggs a day between all of them, and that's after a three week dry spell. (I can just imagine it: "You lay the egg today, Betty -- it's your turn." "Actually, Mrs. Peck-Peck, I laid the egg on Thursday - it's your turn." Only on our farm.)

And yes I know it's cold and dark out, but they've never had such a drop in production -- I think they're just at that life stage.

I love my chickens, but they've got to pay their way around here. It's time to bring in some new layers. It's chick ordering time.

While I previously bought my chicks through the local farm co-op, which in turn source the day olds from a hatchery in southwestern Ontario, I wanted to find a local supplier. And while I was happy with the breeds that we've been tending -- Plymouth Rock, Rhode Island Reds, Columbian Rock x Reds and Black Sex Links -- I wanted to diversify into some heritage breeds.

Then I heard about a hatchery less than two hours south of our farm (ed. note: Performance Poultry, in Prince Edward County); one that offers heritage breeds, plus many of the fancy birds that we see at the county fair poultry shows, plus quail and guinea fowl and the wee sweet bantams.

As I was looking through their online catalogue I could feel the tug of all these beautiful birds -- wouldn't they look gorgeous scratching around the barnyard? Then I snapped back to reality and reminded myself that I'm looking for good layers with nice temperments and hardy dispositions. Not pretty fox treats.

I'm kidding about the fox treats. Not the nice temperments.

So while I was taking a quick (ok, not so quick) tea break today, I started making my chick shopping list (without yet seeing the price list, mind you. So this may change very quickly.)

So far I'm considering:
• 4 Wynadottes
• 4 Orpington
• 4 New Hampshire Reds
• 4 Black Australops (hmmm, I told Lucas I was only ordering 12 (or so) chicks this year as we're not actively selling eggs this season.)

I'd also like to try raising some meat birds. I've been vegetarian for over 15 years, but my family eats meat and I want them to be eating animals that have been raised with the utmost respect, love and care, from start to finish. More on this line of thinking later.

This hatchery offers the White Rock x broiler, as well as a Red Broiler meat bird -- I'm considering 8 to 12 of the latter. They grow more slowly (white rocks grow in 6 to 8 weeks, or 10 to 12 weeks for a larger bird) but without the leg problems common to the fast growing breeds, aka genetic ticking time bombs. (Which comes first -- a trip to the butcher or the massive heart attack? I'm being disingenuous, but only just.)

I'm thinking I'd like to pasture these birds in some sort of chicken tractor. But first I have to build the chicken tractor.

Finally, I'd like to raise a some turkeys. Well, I'd like to raise only two turkeys -- one for Thanksgiving and one for Christmas (actually, I have this idea of growing our entire holiday meal, which sounds fairly simple, but knowing me it'll morph into a project of epic proportions. See the above mentioned chicken tractor.) -- but given what I've heard about raising turkeys (they can drown in a rain storm) I think I'll be raising a few extras, just in case. I'm considering the Ridley Bronze a Canadian heritage turkey. But like the meat birds, I've got to do some more research on this. That'll have to wait until tomorrow's tea break.

What breeds will be on your chick list this year?

Friday, February 10, 2012

Foto Friday -- Simple pleasures

A still warm egg, the first collected in three weeks.

Homemade pear ginger marmalade that tastes like autumn.

Enough fresh cream to make...

... one beautiful pat of butter...

... for some freshly-baked rye bread.

Have a lovely weekend filled with many simple pleasures!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Home dairying and the family cow

Keeping a family cow is a dream for many homesteaders -- a romantic one at that. A cow will produce all the wholesome milk a family could drink, plus beautiful butter, healthful yogurt and delicious artisan cheeses -- without any of the hormones, antibiotics and other medications, or animal cruelty practices associated with conventional industrial farm-sourced dairy products. Her offspring will either expand the bounty (if it's a heifer) or one day put meat on your table (if it's a bull calf).

It's a compelling reason to keep a cow and I've dreamed the dream myself.

But having spent almost four years on the farm I've learned that there's a great divide between dreams and reality. It's easy to spend much time savouring the outputs of the cow without fully considering everything that has to happen to get these glorious dairy products to your belly in the first place. Or maybe I'm just a bit more cautious about getting in over my head…again!

When I first thought about home dairying, I envisioned goats, but now I'm considering other options. That's why I attended a home dairying workshop on Wednesday -- and I'm thrilled (yes, thrilled!) that I did.

While book learning is wonderful, nothing compares to sitting around a kitchen table with a group of like-minded farm women (and two husbands, who I'm convinced were there largely for the delicious potluck lunch) with various degrees of experience and know-how. It was a place to swap stories and laughter over when things go well, and share knowledge, support and encouragement for the times farm life does not.

It was like a knitting bee, but we talked cows, not wool. Instead of sipping tea, we tasted the milk from three different heritage breeds -- Jersey, Milking Shorthorn and Canadian Lineback. Like wine, each had its distinct appearance, taste and finish. My favourite has to be the Jersey -- rich, creamy and smooth!

We started the day with some practical lessons, covering some basic how-tos on making quark, butter and yogurt.

The quark, a kind of soft cheese-like spread, was so easy to make and didn't require any specialized equipment. It's a great way to use large quantities of milk and can be served plain, or fancied up with fruit for a sweet treat or herbs and garlic for a savoury spread. It also makes for a beautiful photo, had I remembered to pull out my camera!

I'd made butter before by shaking it (a great project to do with kids), but I was impressed by this large-scale motorized butter churn. When the conditions are just right, it'll take cream to butter in 20 minutes. (I was gabbing too much to pay attention to how long it actually took!)

After rinsing the butter in water, it was packed into a beautiful antique wooden press.

Of course it didn't last long in this pristine form as we each smeared it on thick chunks of freshly-made whole grain bread (baked by one of the above-mentioned farm husbands).

I make my own yogurt, but I usually do so in a small yogurt maker. I've read about other no-tech methods, but I thought this idea so smart and so simple, especially when you're making larger quantities.

Once the milk has been inoculated with the yogurt culture, either from a previous batch or store-bought yogurt, the container is placed in a cooler filled with warm water and within two hours, it's done!

We talked briefly about the basics of cheese making, focusing mostly on mozzarella and a mild cheddar, but it's a much more complicated process with different handling practices, culture requirements, etc., and would be better suited to its own workshop. What was lacking in learning was well compensated by enthusiastic tasting!

After a delicious potluck (farmers lunches are the best!), which included freshly-harvested greens from the hoop house, we moved onto talking about herd health and management practices.

This is where I feel I have the most to learn. While I'm thinking about (one day) keeping a family cow, I'm intimidated by my perceptions of what that involves -- the daily milkings, trying to keep up with (or being 'drowned' by) such a steady supply of milk, how to breed (AI vs bull), difficult calving, food-borne illness, providing the proper nutritional needs, and so on.

Here's just a fraction of what I learned:

Choosing the "right" breed (for our particular needs) is so important and will naturally help alleviate some of these concerns. For example, a heritage breed like the Jersey (one of the traditional family cow breeds) is an easy keeper, calves well on her own and on pasture, is a good mother and produces enough, but not too much, milk for a family. What's more, the Jersey isn't a very big cow to manage, which is important when you're (almost!) 5'4" tall.

The scale isn't quite right, but you can see the height difference between Guinevere, a Jersey, and a large draft horse in behind.

Next, the farm women shared different strategies for milking -- some milked every day, another milked every other day and a third milked every third or four day (this with the Milking Shorthorns) -- but the commonality was a long 'natural' lactation. Each allowed the calf to nurse for months, not a few weeks, which grew a healthier and happier calf (and cow), and created a manageable milking load. (For example, the farmer who milked ever third day, simply separated the calf the night before, which provided enough milk for the next morning without any ill effects to the cow, i.e. she'd never had a bout with mastitis.)

I have limited experience with milking (I only milked Lucy a few times after the birth of the triplets, just to syringe feed Archie who needed a boost in the first two days) but now I have a much better understanding of how to get the milk from the cow to the kitchen and beyond. It all starts with creating a scrupulously clean environment -- from the udder to the collecting containers to the storage jars to the final processing.

All the farmers were hand milkers, so I didn't learn about milking machines, but in terms of milking buckets, pails and strainers, stainless steel is the material of choice. I also have some leads as to where I could source these supplies, which isn't as easy as I first thought.

We had a robust conversation about the pros and cons of AI versus breeding with a bull. With AI, you can expose your cow to a wide range of favourable genetics and you can time the breeding (once you get attuned to your cow's heat cycle, which isn't as easy as it sounds -- apparently cows only have a 24 hour "window" within each 21 day cycle) but there can be a lot of bureaucratic red tape and cost (in Ontario, at least) around obtaining and storing the straws, especially if you don't have a local dairy farmer with a freezer handy.

The alternative is to borrow a bull (with only one or two family cows (to stagger the breeding cycles), I wouldn't consider keeping a bull) but that opens up a host of issues around sourcing and transporting the bull, fencing, proper handing, etc. The benefit is he naturally knows when the cow is in heat, which can remove a lot of the guesswork for novice farmers.

Of course no conversation around a home dairy would be complete without talking about food safety, which starts with good herd health and nutrition. This could (and should) be a post on its own but for folks concerned about microbial contamination (this includes you, Dad!) I have a greater understanding of how to enjoy the benefits of fresh milk and reduce the risk of food-borne illness.

It was a long and full day and after a visit to the barn where we visited with the beautiful creatures who shared their bounty with us, we (the women, not the creatures -- they got nose rubs) exchanged hugs, expressions of gratitude and requests to keep in touch.

As for me, I think my next step is to find someone local with a house cow who can teach me more of the practicalities. I'd also like to connect with some local breeders. I won't be bringing a cow to the farm soon -- I have to repair and reconfigure the barn, and fix and install many (many) lengths of fencing, just for a start -- but I'm doing so with the vision that one day this farm could house a family cow. Until then, I'm comforted by the knowing that when questions or problems arise, I now have a community of farm women there to support me.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012


The beautiful Guinevere, who shared her delicious Jersey milk at today's home dairying workshop.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Away from home

I do a lot of living at home -- it's where I work, raise children, grow food and feed my spirit -- so it’s always a little unsettling when I leave for longer than a day. But it's good for me, too. While I marvel every day that I actually get to live on this land, and I'm grateful for all the small stuff -- the intense winter quiet, the nurturing warmth and hypnotic glow from the wood stove, the star spackled sky -- it can be hard to keep up with a never-ending list of chores and to-dos and must-do-nows.

So when an obligation or an opportunity takes me away from home, Lucas tells me to enjoy it, embrace it, take the break and to simply "have fun." And I do. But it doesn't take long before I start feeling the tug towards home. This place is under my skin; it's a part of me and who I am. It is my present and my future.

But this most recent three days away has connected me with a part of my past. A great friend and colleague, who's an instructor at a big university in southwestern Ontario, asked me to guest lecture at one of her classes. It was great fun speaking to (and with) young people about being a professional writer and editor and these teaching visits (this is my second) help me refocus on my own writing projects.

Standing in front of a classroom was both strange and intensely familiar. Even though the world of academia is many, many miles away from my current reality, it's also a part of me, rooted in very early memories of visits to the place my dad worked.

While other kids' dads might have been business people or teachers, my dad was a scientist, with his own lab, at a university. I was always proud of that and of how interesting his workplace was, with its odd smells and strange equipment. It seemed like he was part of an exclusive club, and in many ways he probably was. Then later, after a rocky start, I spent several stimulating years at university pursuing my own studies, first with my undergrad then a post-grad. It's a world I could have made a life in, but I followed a different path.

University is a nice place to visit and I'd welcome more opportunities like today's in the future, but I'm happy to be going back to my chosen life on the farm with its to-do lists and big big sky. Besides, it's a full moon tonight and she's just not the same with a city skyline at her feet.

So after one more girlie gab over a dawn-lit breakfast, I'll be leaving tomorrow to start my long journey home. But first I'll be making a pit stop, or actually, a farm stop. As I don't often get out to the "west end" of the province, which is home to a large and active ecological agriculture community, I'll be stopping at farm-based workshop on home dairying. I'm excited. Learning hands-on about making yoghurt, cheese and butter, as well as raising a family cow, will help bring us one yummy step closer to my goal of food self-sufficiency.

And while it's commonplace to bring back trip souvenirs, I assured Lucas I won't be bringing back a house cow. Then again, I didn't make any promises about a sheep or goat.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Madcap Monday -- Roll call

Animals have always played a central role in our homesteading adventure. We moved to the farm in July and by our first Christmas we were home to a motley crew of creatures including chickens, goats, donkeys, barn cats and a horse. Since then we've added more chickens, ducks, more cats and, most recently, the bees.

While I'm thinking about raising a couple of heritage breed pigs this year and one day I'd love to tend a small flock of wool sheep, for now we share our lives with:

• one horse
• two donkeys
• two colonies of bees (a bear destroyed the third one)
• three indoor cats
• four barn cats
• four goats
• five ducks
• 15 chickens
• And two dogs

Wait a minute... TWO dogs? Yes, Henry finally has a long-awaited companion -- a friend with whom he can chase wild turkeys, bark at the donkeys, roll in dead things and snooze by the fire.

This is Annie.

When we adopted her in October, the pound said she's a black lab/collie cross, approximately six months old, but we think she has a bit of greyhound in her too. The squirrels think so too.

She's ridiculous...

... and a handful...

... and Henry adores her. Even when she hogs his bed and snores like a foghorn.

She farts, too.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Ten essential herbs

Last weekend I attended the Guelph Organic Conference, which was a wonderful opportunity to share time and space with a vibrant community of people there to discuss ideas and practices for a more sustainable, healthier and robust local food system.

I attended several workshops and while I learned a lot from each, one of the most readily applicable was "Ten Essential Herbs" presented by Kerry Hackett, a medical herbalist based in Peterborough, Ont. I'm often a bit wary about these "top 10" kinds of presentations, but even Hackett said that she finds "all herbs essential" and that this was her top 10 list when she assembled the presentation.

While herbs are commonly known for their edible and nutritive properties (what would Italian food be without basil, oregano and thyme?), they also have amazing medical and therapeutic properties and are among the oldest forms of healing.

Hackett's list (with a few of their main functions/actions) included:

• Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis) -- soothes, cools, calms and coats
• Calendula (Calendula officinalis) -- a brilliant "first aid plant"
• Cayenne (Capsicum minimum) -- stimulant, pain reliever, stops bleeding
• St. John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum) -- aids with agitation and anxiety, also nerve damage
• Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) -- helps relax, also good for cuts, bites and burns + muscle aches
• Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) -- good for inflammation, indigestion, fever, insomnia
• Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) - she spoke mainly on its properties when used externally for cuts, burns, bruises, etc.
• Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) -- good detoxifier, aids skin ailments
• Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) -- useful for sore throats, dry coughs, plus cuts/bites
• Nettle (Urtica dioica) -- nutritive tonic & detoxifier

Beyond simply listing the properties of these 10 herbs, Hackett explained how to make herbal teas (hot infusions, cold infusions and decocted teas), macerated tinctures and infused oils, and gave suggestions on best methods of drying -- all which helped bring light to the rudimentary knowledge that I'd so far only gleaned from books.

While the practice of tending and healing with herbs is an ancient one, and some herbal cures seem rather fanciful in today's over-prescribed world, I find many simple remedies are both restorative and nurturing. My friend Karen is the green-thumb behind Porcupine Creek Farm and her beautiful Cold Comfort Blend tea, made with spearmint, yarrow and mallow blossoms, is our go-to remedy when we're suffering from a cold or respiratory infection. And just the other day my throat was feeling raw, so I took some Oil of Oregano in my orange juice. Wonderful stuff, that.

I've been cultivating herbs over the past few years, but on a small-scale and casual basis; herbs were more like accessories than intentional parts of my garden plan. I've grown basil, oregano and thyme in the vegetable garden, stuck some chamomile and lemon balm in the strawberry patch, scattered bergamot, Echinacea and lavender amongst the flower beds, and found mullein, comfrey and chicory growing wild throughout the farm. Then there's the small collection of culinary herbs that Ella helps me tend on the deck just off the kitchen, composed of favourites such as basil, rosemary, tarragon, parsley and the like.

Since we're approaching our fourth summer on the farm, I've been looking to increase the efficiency of the land while reducing my workload. This means that before I plant something in the garden, for example, I want to consider its function(s) and favour the tending of plants that serve more than one purpose.

While I have a large collection (read jungle) of perennial flowers that grow in the garden closest to the house, they are really mostly eye candy (and overgrown eye candy at that), though the bees do love the poppies. I've been thinking (for a while) about revamping that space to make it both beautiful and functional and Hackett's presentation helped give me the boost I need to start planning for this spring.

I haven't decided what'll live there yet, but this list gives me a good place to start. And as Kerry Hackett says, herbs "enliven the soul just from their beauty." I think we can all use a little soul enlivening, don't you?

Related Posts with Thumbnails