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Posts Tagged ‘permaculture’

No matter how long the winter season, and how much I intend to get ahead of my to-do list, spring always sees me rushing to prepare for the building and gardening season. There are a few things I’ve learned over the last few years and this year I may just be ready on time, if not ahead of it.

I have learned that moderation/reason is not really my thing. I could try to work on this but why? I get sh*t done. In the process I will inevitably hurt myself, sometimes quite seriously. This year, in preparation for the back-breaking labour I’ll participate in, the too-heavy loads I’ll carry, and the insanely acrobatic moves I’ll endeavour, I’ve started Jillian Michael’s 30 day Shred to strengthen up my core and (hopefully) prevent some injuries.

I’m past the 30 day mark, and though I could hardly walk the first few days in, I’m now doing it twice daily. I feel like a motherf*ckin’ beast. My neck and shoulders are feeling remarkably solid and I think that- just maybe- I can get away without any serious neck injuries this year. So- my first tip for prepping for a non-stop building season: get in shape. There’s no time off for injuries.

Second thing I have learned to get on top of: food preparation. It doesn’t matter if I’ve been working alongside Shane for twelve hours straight: food falls to me. If we depended on Shane we’d be eating Fudgeo’s and Corn Pops. There are a number of meals that I can make in advance and are easy enough to warm up for lunch and supper. Jamaican patties, biryani, bolognese sauce, and calzones are among some of the easier dinners to make ahead and then simply heat up. Sandwiches are another easy meal so I try to bake and freeze some bread as well. And desserts like cranberry blondies freeze well and are a good treat after a long day.

I also shop in bulk for items I don’t want to make a last minute town-run for, bearing in mind that’s an hour round-trip. Plain tomato sauce, tea, pasta, olives, honey, coffee, a couple kinds of flour, balsamic vinegar- all on hand in bulk. Yogurt made 4 quarts at a time so that I’m never low. Carnation milk (gag) because I can’t drink coffee black and I don’t need to discover we’re out of milk first thing in the morning. Whatever you use frequently, or use when you’re in a rush to knock out a meal- buy it in advance. It’ll save loads of time and frustration.

Seeds have already been started and my garden is plotted. It’ll be weeks before anything can go outside but when they can, my plants will be ready for our super-short growing season. I’m trying out a 10 by 15 foot Three Sisters garden this year (in addition to my regular plots) and I’m putting it in a poor-soil area. Before anything’s ready to go into the ground, I’ll need to have all of my soil amended, paths graveled and waterways plotted. If you’re putting in a garden remember that it may be too early to plant, but it’s probably not too early to start conditioning your soil, building raised beds, putting up fencing- whatever will save time and allow you to focus on tending the garden and not on the myriad other tasks that go along with it.

Building supplies. Oi vey. I couldn’t even hazard a guess how much time I’ve spent at UFA and Home Depot. Suffice to say that I sweep right past the personnel at the front asking if there’s anything they can help with because I know the layouts better than anyone who works there. Building supplies are not something you want to run low on in the middle of a job- especially with the ridiculously short Canadian building season. Now is the time to stock up on those items you know that you’ll need. I buy a little extra, because I will always find a use for any leftover materials but I don’t like to get stuck midstream.

On that note- do you have a date in mind for starting your build? Unless you live in BC, scrap that. Start as soon as weather permits. That might mean you have two days of building only to see it snow again, but that’s two days in. Summer storms, broken ankles, short supplies- all sorts of things can happen to cut into your building time once the build starts. You will not regret starting as early as possible. If you get ahead of the build (hahahahahaha! ha!) great- you will have some time to relax before winter is upon us again. But more than likely, even having started early, you’ll be busy right up until the snow flies again.

Speaking of snow- are you prepared for next winter? If you’re heating and cooking with wood, like we are, you are probably going to need to start on your firewood supply. Wood needs time to dry after it’s been cut. Remember when I said, “a lumberjack I’m not”? I take that back. We went out four weekends in a row, getting up at 4:30 am and home to bed by midnight or so. I am the whiniest lumberjack you may ever meet, but a lumberjack I am. What can I say? Heat and food outweighed my disdain for the task.

We’ll be out several more times this year, the sooner the better. I don’t know exactly how much wood we burned this past season. We bought a cord and a half. But we supplemented that with pallet wood from our now dwindling pallet-supply. It’s hard to say how much that amounted to. On the subject of pallets- if you can get them (free), do. They’re excellent for all sorts of projects, but also for burning. A lot of stores will put off taking them to the dump (can you believe people just toss them out?) so it’s not a bad idea to take a peak behind some of the big box and building supply stores and find out if you can take them away. A lot of businesses are thrilled to have you take them.

Finally- have a plan, a back-up plan, a last-minute plan, a weather plan… Plan, plan, and plan some more. You need an idea of what goals you should be hitting and when. That way if you get to week three and you haven’t hit a goal that was due in week one, you know that you need to kick it into overdrive. Similarly, if you’d planned on building but it’s pouring buckets you should be able to carry on with other work- like weeding (which is ideal in the rain) or prepping more meals to be frozen, or running out for supplies you forgot to stock up on. But don’t make plans off-site. You’re not going anywhere. There’ll be no dinners out, no get togethers with friends, no weekends away- you’re booked. Solid until winter. Sound like fun? Ready, set, go!

Beginning of our wood stack

Beginning of our wood stack

Still to be cut and stacked

Still to be split and stacked

Lumberjack right there baby!

Lumberjack right there baby!

A few of my seedlings

A few of my seedlings

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It has been a long and ridiculously cold winter. Last week we were seeing temperatures of -40 C and this week, I’m thrilled to say, we’ve hit +5 C for several days in a row. For my foreign readers, +5 C is t-shirt weather in Canada. Another two degrees and it’ll be time to break out the shorts. Granted, there’re still several feet of snow on the ground- so it’ll most definitely be shorts with boots- but such is spring in Canada.

Like many of my cold compatriots I’ve spent the last several weeks poring over seed catalogues, dreaming of warmer days. Yesterday I finally got my act together and put my orders in. I ordered my seeds through Salt Spring Seeds and The Cottage Gardener, two wonderful Canadian companies with a wide variety of heirloom seeds. That was the exciting part of the day.

Now, I have to say- there are times when I still get comments on the “About” section of this blog and I think the reference I made to us as “city kids” as passé. We are so beyond that. We know what we’re doing now. We are country folk. And then I remember, “oh no you’re not”. The gardens being a good reminder- because I still have no real idea what I’m doing, other than that some of it is working out.

The one brilliant tip that I have put to good use is to mimic nature, mixing my plants instead of planting all clean rows of single species. For the last few years I have happily thrown seeds willy-nilly all over the place and had pretty amazing results. Last year I had such a bumper crop of tomatoes I was eating them like apples throughout the day. Still, I know that I can get even better results if I know a thing or two about the vegetables, herbs and flowers that I’m planting.

As much as I love the seed companies that I deal with they are miserable for providing useful information. Take this as an example, from a Cottage Gardener package of Horehound seeds: This herb takes its name from Horus, Egyptian god of sky and light. Folk legend through the ages attributed it with the power to break magic spells. Syrups and cough drops have been made from it since at least he 16th century. So if I’m Harry Potter or a seed-historian, this is great information. But what about planting and caring for the little f*ckers?

So after ordering the seeds, the next stage involved inputting all of my seeds into an Excel spreadsheet. I have about 65 species to sort and I want to know everything from when I can expect them to mature, sun required, soil preferred, how tall/wide they grow, spacing, whether I should be planting a second crop later in the season, which are good companion plants, which will do best in a hoop house, etc.

That took me all freaking day. I had to google most of the plants one by one, and then a lot of the sites only had partial information so I had to research multiple sites. I am not quite done yet but even if I get no further, I have a ton of useful information. And I know a lot more about my plants that I ever did before.

My next step will be plotting a map, so that I can design my space to get the best results. And then I’ll need to start moving earth again (once the snow melts) and preparing the different soils for planting, building a couple of pathways between gardens, and getting the hoop houses ready. All this with one arm tied behind my back- because spring has finally arrived and though it may not be recognizable as such to my friends from warmer climes, I am Canadian! Full of piss and vinegar and ready to get my game on!☺

Beets from years past

Beets from years past

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I was tag surfing this morning (hard at work, as usual) and came across this brilliant little design for Windowfarms. It’s basically a small hydroponic system that uses minimal power to produce food in areas of limited space. The kicker is that it’s a vertical garden, ideal for apartment dwellers. I’m thinking that, for myself, it would be an ideal addition to the greenhouse I’m planning to build next year. Really maximize my use of available space.

I spent a good deal of time on the website, Windowfarms, and it’s impressive on so many levels- not the least of which is that an open source community has been formed to share ideas, improvements, and questions as people around the globe build their own Windowfarms in various climates, with variable sunlight, and using a multitude of materials.

The plans are free to the public and it’s said for as little as $30 (USD) in materials and an afternoon, you can build your own 3 container vertical unit. Plans for a considerably larger unit are also available. You do have to register with the open source community and agree to the terms of service, which basically state that you are free to use the plans however you like other than commercially, i.e. you can’t sell these plans or the products produced from them. This is in order to keep the technology in the hands of the people. (Note: By all means read the terms of service- it’s interesting and gives a real feel for the community around this idea. Not the standard TOS I’m used to reading/not reading.)

I should tell you that I found the video for Windowfarms not on their site, or Youtube, but on a WordPress blog, Permaculture Power.  It’s a great little blog with lots of videos and links to the resources. Check it out for other wonderful little gems. I’ll add it to my blogroll as well for easy reference.

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I might just have easily titled this blog, “The Seeds I Tossed on the Ground and Forgot About”. I had very (very) little time for gardening this year and we had that water concern part way through the summer that left me feeling very stingy with the rainwater. Our well water is very heavy in salts and iron and I don’t like to use it on my freshly built beds so without rainwater- well, the gardens were pretty dry a lot of the time.

Luckily it didn’t seem to matter all that much, if the results were anything to go by. I mixed things up, yet again, with an interest in what companion plantings would work best. Had my labels lasted more than a few weeks in the blazing sun, or my knowledge of plants in general been stronger, it might have been a better exercise. As it was I wasn’t entirely sure what some of the plants were- other than tasty. (I still have that old childhood habit of eating anything that looks pretty, or interesting. Mixed results on that practice.)

I do know that I threw a lot of different seeds into a relatively small space and got pretty good results. Some of the plants that I did recognize were the pumpkins, squash, green beans, yellow beans, soy beans, turnips, beets, leeks, onions, milkweed (gorgeous!), borage, cabbage, tomatoes, amaranth (though it took looking up on the internet), dill, nasturtiums and peppers. And of course the potato patch, with lots of golden and red potatoes.

Our raspberries and strawberries did well again, though we welcomed some little critter that took to the strawberries in a rather ambivalent way- eating half a strawberry and moving on to the next. We had gooseberries as well this year, off a little bush I bought. And we bought a couple of apple trees with an eye on the future. An added bonus- some red clover found it’s way into my garden and yet more wild roses are popping up in random places around the property. And we had a brilliant crop of pin cherries that I’m still making my way through.

I didn’t weed much, or at all for periods of time. My reasoning was two-fold. One: I’m lazy, or would like to be if I had the time. I was far too busy on the site to want to spend my nights kneeling in front of a garden weeding. So I didn’t. And the other reason is that I noticed last year (or the year before?) that the pests don’t seem to care whether the plant is edible to me or not- they’ll eat it. So I found leaving at least some weeds in (especially leafy ones) keeps damage to the other plants down.

All in all not bad for a no-maintenance garden. I think that even though I didn’t follow through on my plan to monitor how the plants interacted with each other (whether they benefited each other or had a negligible effect) I can safely assume that variety is the way to go. Had I neglected my gardens so badly in previous years, when I followed the more traditional planning of straight rows and single crop groupings, they wouldn’t have survived. And I did notice that while some plants were hit by pests (my turnip tops and cabbages got hit hard by cabbage moths, even with the placement of borage I’d heard might repel them) they didn’t decimate the entire garden. So that was nice. Bats next year, I hope.

How about you? How did your gardens fare this year? Any companion plantings that you swear by, or won’t try again?

tomatoes & clover

borage and cabbage

before things got wild

early plantings

milkweed, turnips, leeks

dill, borage & squash

leeks, beans & milkweed

amaranth, turnips & onions

nasturtiums borage corn

Squash, corn & borage

mid summer wildness

our gooseberry bush

little Macintosh apple trees

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Our weather has me a little concerned. At this time last year we were digging the foundation and rubble trench but here we are buried under several feet of snow with no sign of spring yet. Nevertheless I have started my seeds indoors hoping that any day now we’ll have fantastically warm days that will melt away the snow and allow me to start several new gardens before we start work on the house again.

I’ve mentioned before that our soil is absolute crap necessitating the building of raised bed gardens. Apart from hauling the materials- which can be a little labour intensive- they’re ridiculously easy to build and the plants loved them last year. I’ll be adding another couple hundred square feet altogether this year. My design is complete to make the most of rain capture and ease of maintenance and I’m ready to go! Anytime now…

Last year I built frames for the gardens using discarded wood, as well as some with rock borders, and a few very small ones using wagon wheels. Eventually I’d like to build up the walls using earthbags and plaster but given the limited time this year I’ll probably go with rock walls. We have a zillion rocks on the property and I like the look of rock besides.

Rather than just filling in the beds with purchased soil, I do sheet mulching which is basically a kind of ‘composting in place’. First I break up the soil. I don’t really turn it over, just break it in place twisting a shovel. Then add a little manure (just an inch will do), then about half an inch of newspaper (just the black and white- no glossy or color pages). Hose it down really well and top the newspaper with more manure or fresh grass clippings- just a bit will suffice. Top that with about eight inches or so of mulch. I have straw and leaves on hand so that’s what I use but wood shavings, broken down bark, or the like will work as well. I also threw in veggie scraps last year. On top of that goes a couple of inches of soil mixed with compost and then the final mulch layer- about two inches of chopped straw or whatever you have on hand. When you’re ready to plant you just pull back the top layer of mulch and plant your seeds in the soil/compost layer. (I skipped the final mulch layer last year, allowing some weeds to invade the space.)

Sheet mulching is really forgiving- you don’t have to be precise and you can throw a lot of stuff in there so long as you try to keep a relatively even balance. You do have to water the bed really well when you first build it. It shouldn’t be overflowing with water but quite damp and it’s amazing how much water the layers will absorb. Other than that, combined with some basic polyculture garden design, it was pretty much maintenance-free. I pulled a couple of weeds here and there but never actually applied myself to the task. I particularly enjoyed pulling up the carrots which slid easily from the nice fluffy beds, perfectly fat and intact.

The other thing I want to try this year is hugelkultur which involves collecting dead fall branches, piling them about two feet deep, stomping them down (I intend to dance on mine, no sense wasting the opportunity to dance), adding some straw and grass clippings and topping it off with about an inch each of soil and compost. According to Gaia’s Garden (one of my all time favourite books) potatoes, squash, melons and other vines do exceedingly well in this environment. I imagine raspberries and blueberries would probably do well too and I’ll perhaps try those next year.

Yet another option that I probably won’t get to this year is a dead wood swale which involves digging down about a foot and a half, dropping in dead fall, rotting stumps, and firewood, and backfilling the trench. Berries are particularly partial to this type of garden as it mimics their preferred natural environment. I would just love to have lots of blueberries on the property reminiscent of my days in the East.

Ah- I can’t wait! Soon I’ll be back in my element- in the mud, covered in bruises and cuts from hauling materials and building, sore but oh so satisfied at the end of the day. 🙂

wagon wheels

several styles of raised beds

rock bed, early summer

rock bed, mid-summer

surveying the scene- not quite ready!

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I went a little crazy ordering seeds and seedlings. Have I mentioned that moderation just isn’t my thing? I keep meaning to do ‘just a little’ of something but so far in all my years haven’t managed to pull it off. Granted, I went with way less than I would have liked to and I think that counts for something. Maybe common sense is not long to follow. I hope (if that is the case) that it comes in small doses because I am greatly reliant on my abject refusal to believe in the impossible. It’s a lifestyle.

So- what we have on the way this year… 50 Manitoba maples, 100 choke cherry bushes, and 75 hawthorns- courtesy of the Agroforestry Development Centre. We had hoped for some Siberian crab apple trees and red osier dogwood but they were out of stock, so they’re on the list for next year. Still, that’s a lot of digging for this year.

From the Cottage Gardener, we have received seeds for mule team and Czech select tomatoes, fordhook giant Swiss chard, spaghetti squash, potimarron winter squash, common chives, Greek oregano, purple coneflower, Roman chamomile, dark Italian parsley, anise hyssop, borage, cilantro, feverfew, lemon balm, milk thistle, white sage, and Oriental poppies.

From Salt Spring Seeds we ordered, and received, quinoa, yarrow, evening primrose, purple amaranth, tomatillos, and sweet rocket (aka dame’s violet). And from PR Seeds we ordered onion, carrot, leek, quinoa, soy bean, and amaranth. We placed the order some time back and I am starting to get a little concerned having heard nothing yet. I’ll give it until next week and then ring dude who runs the place. We also ordered goji berry seeds from a place in Saskatoon and I’m quite excited to see how those turn out.

In addition to those, we have nasturtium, Swiss chard and red onion seeds harvested last year, as well as partial packages of beets, dill, bush beans, turnips, lupine, and lettuce. Ah, and I hope to separate out some of my rhubarb this year. And see if I can’t get those fern seeds that I harvested in Oregon started… Yep, so- quite the plan considering that I have to build most of the gardens that will house these wonderful plants. Of course, this in advance of starting the build on our earthbag domes with the intention of finishing this year. It’s alright though- I’ve been working out in preparation. (I shit you not.)

It’s been really interesting, planning the garden this year. I played around with companion planting last year, and with soil building and raised gardens, and it was pretty successful given the very limited amount of time I had to dedicate to it. By successful, I mean that we got a lot of meals out of it. And some decent seeds saved. This year will push the envelope a little further, with a concentration on plants that not only do well in our environment and with our soil type, but serve multiple purposes (as most of our herbs do, and even our trees and bushes). And we’re trying something a little different with shapes and contours. Some of it we’ve read about, some we’re just going to try and see what happens.

I can’t wait to get started- it should be a lot of fun! And plenty o’ work. There’ll be whining later, I’m sure. 🙂

still a ways off of planting anything but my bum in the ground

 

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It’s been a while since I’ve written and it may seem that’s because I haven’t anything new to report but it’s been quite the opposite- too much on the go and not enough hours in the day. Add to which at any given time, I have a dozen ideas on the go and it’s just painstakingly difficult to focus on one thing long enough to write. Our seeds have been ordered (one set already received), we received confirmation of our order for trees and bushes, we bought our power system (less the batteries which we’ll buy closer to the move-in date), we’re busy making firebricks, experimenting with vegetarian meals, and- of course- loads of studying going on.

Since we went ahead and committed to a system, I figured I should learn everything that I can about off-grid systems- PV arrays, batteries, wiring, chargers and inverters, gensets and so on. Holy f*ck. This isn’t my first round of studying this stuff but it might as well be- I feel so overwhelmed. I’ve often thought that stupid people must have such relaxed, pleasant lives but I’ve reconsidered that position. My experience with it is that it’s downright frustrating.

Today I decided to break away from the power side of things and examine landscape design in more detail. It has to be decided by spring as well. I’m thinking of adding a few keyhole gardens to the mix, possibly with the intention of bringing them all together down the road as one big mandala garden. I started soil building last year and will continue with raised beds this year given the condition of the soil out here, add to which with the exception of last year we have limited rainfall at best. Keyhole gardens sound like my best option for maximizing use of available space and limited water.

Well, my head is swimming. Just thought I’d touch base and let you know what’s going on with the Canadian dirtbags these days.

 

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