Tuesday, December 15, 2009


It snowed yesterday, as promised by the weather forecasters. It started about 2:00, and by the time I was driving home from a tutoring session, the roads were lightly snow covered. More snow through the evening and overnight, so we woke this morning to that lovely brightened light coming in through the bedroom windows that tells you there's lots of snow before you even look.

Snow is different this year than last. For one thing, there's a lot less of it - as least so far. Last winter the record breaking cold and snowfalls made our weekend trips here something of an adventure: driving over the Malahat at 5:00 a.m. in a blinding snowstorm (sorry, Mom), dealing with burst pipes in the pump house twice (the first time due to ignorance, the second to stupidity), being snowed in and unable to return to Victoria and having to borrow a can opener from the neighbours so we could eat a can of beans warmed on the wood stove, waiting anxiously to see if our road would be plowed, and making friends with Bruce the backhoe guy. It's different this year - other than getting William the cat to the vet this afternoon, we have no place other than home where we need to be, the power has stayed on, water is flowing through the pipes as it should, and we have our own can opener.

Three wonderful things from this morning: animal tracks in the snow (raccoon and rabbit, we think), Frankie forgetting his 9-year old doggy dignity and reverting to berserk puppyhood as he played in all the white stuff, and watching two red-headed woodpeckers chase each other around and around a snow-covered tree, creating the Mucky Boots version of a barber's pole.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Planning the garden

The first 2010 seed catalogue arrived today. Wowie! Many pages to pore over, and lots of planning to do.

Now I know that some of you reading this won't have much of an idea about what goes into planning a vegetable garden, so I'm going to explain as much as I know so far. Please believe me: I'm not making any of this up.

The first thing is to make a list of what you might like to grow. This list, I have learned, should more or less correspond to what you might like to eat. I learned this the hard way, when I didn't acknowledge the fact that I really don't like kale only after I had a bed full of it ready to harvest. When you make the list of what to grow, it's important to recognize that your space is probably limited, and you won't have room for everything. So, as well as thinking of what you might like to eat, think of things that are hard to get in the grocery store (like purple potatoes), or are expensive to buy (like basil). Some things, like onions, are dead cheap to buy, but the homegrown ones are so much better you should go ahead and plant some anyway. Also, especially for new gardeners like me, it's probably a good idea to stick to things that are easier to grow.

The next thing is to look at the space you have and see what you can fit in. This is more complicated than you think, because some crops (like garlic) will be harvested by July, leaving an empty bed ready for something else. You may be able to get three different crops from a single bed: early radishes and green onions, followed by beans, followed by Swiss Chard or (yuck) kale to harvest through the winter. This is especially true if you are starting seeds in soil blocks and then transplanting them when they are partly grown. So you need more than a plan with a space for each bed - you need a plan that takes into account time, too.

Which leads to the issue of crop rotations. It's important not to plant the same crop in the same bed two years running, because it gives pests and diseases a better chance to make a permanent home there. Also, some crops use lots of the nutrients in the soil, so you shouldn't plan two such crops in a row. So you can't really plan a garden for a year - you should really plan it at least 3 years ahead, to make sure you've accounted for all the crop rotations you'll need to do.

If you've followed all that, you'll have a plan for what vegetables are going to be planted in what beds when, for the next few years. The next thing is to choose the varieties - that's where the seed catalogues come in. For example, suppose you're thinking of carrots. There are lots of options, depending on what you want. Early carrots or late carrots? Carrots you plan to eat right away or store for future use? Orange carrots, red carrots, purple carrots or yellow carrots? Long, skinny carrots or short, fat carrots? Do you need a variety that is resistant to any particular disease or pest that is common in your area? Do you want a hybrid (often bred for resistance) or an open-pollinated variety (which means you can collect the seeds for planting the following year)? Although the choices will seem endless (especially if, like me, you are cross-referencing 3 or 4 different catalogues) you should probably stick to 2 varieties - more is just plain silly.

When all this is done you'll have a plan for your garden, and a list of what seeds to order. The last ingredient is a calendar of planting dates. After all, it would be a shame to realize in June that your peas should have been planted in April.

Your calendar of planting dates needs to take into account a few things. First, know the planting zone in which you are located. Gardening in Victoria is very different from gardening in Thunder Bay. Second, read the information given in the seed catalogues or any reference books you have, in order to get a rough idea of which weeks or months you should be planting in. Third, think about whether you want all your beans, for example, ready at the same time - say, if you wanted to pickle them. If so, plant them all at once. If not, be sure to stagger the planting across several weeks. Cross-reference that with all your other information and you'll have a good idea of what to plant when.

If you're really keen you can also consult a calendar to see when the moon is waxing and when it is waning. According to biodynamic farming principles, it's better to plant vegetables in which the desirable part is below the ground (like potatoes or radishes) when the moon is waning, and vegetables whose upper part you want to eat (like salad greens or peas) when the moon is waxing. (This is the time when I need to remind you I'm not making any of this up...)

Call me obsessive, call me anally-retentive. But I have a week-by-week calendar for what gets planted when that takes me from late January (when onions and leeks get started in the greenhouse) to mid-September when the last radishes and lettuce for eating through the winter are planted. I am a planner, and I am proud!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Our night visitor

We had a visitor last night at Mucky Boots. We're not entirely sure what it was, but all signs point to a bear. Now this shouldn't really surprise us, and maybe it's a sign of how quiet our lives have become, but this visit is the biggest excitement we've had in days!

Kim spotted the first evidence this morning when she went out to the workshop, and it wasn't hard to spot: a demolished compost heap. Our pile of finished compost was completely torn apart, the cement blocks around our in-progress compost pile were tossed hither and thither, and our wheelbarrow was tipped over and had a broken wheel. Kim called me out on the walkie-talkie and by the time I had bundled up and made my way to the workshop, she had scouted the perimeter and discovered two places where it looked like something big and heavy had made its way over the fence, lots of big footprints in the frost (pretty indistinct, but more circular than oblong), and a large area in the orchard where the frosty grass had all been melted and squashed flat - perhaps the place where the bear stopped to nap after its exertions at the compost pile?

Our neighbour Nick calmed us down a little. He said bears will occasionally pass through, and it's only worth worrying about if they hang around or come back. So for the next few days Kim will be extra careful coming back to the house from the workshop after dark, and we'll keep a closer eye on the pets when they're outside.

The cold weather is holding. It has been about 5 below at night for the last week or so, and warming up only to about freezing during the day. (Yes, call us wimps, but this is really unusual!) The salad greens in the garden are frozen solid, and even the tough ones like the mizuna, arugula and mache probably won't recover. It's a good learning experience for next year: the winter greens really need the protection of the greenhouse, not just cold frames and row covers. I'm not as sad about the demise of my winter garden as I thought I might be. This time of year my thoughts turn more to hot, homemade soup and roasted root vegetables, and salads strike me as awfully cold and damp.

The skim of crystals on the pond has frozen to an official layer of ice, which has interfered with Frankie, Petunia and William using it as a handy source of drinking water. Frankie has discovered how to pounce on the ice with stiff front legs in order to break it for a nice cold drink, but the cats are going to have to depend on their doggy brother while the pond remains frozen.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Puffy vests

My wardrobe has changed since we moved to the farm. Instead of choosing between fancy work clothes and regular clothes, now I choose between dirty work clothes and regular clothes. One of the staples of both work and regular wardrobes is the "puffy vest", so named by my friend Linda who is the queen of puffy vests.

My first acquisition was the light blue one you see here. I got it last fall when Kim and I were coming up on weekends to try to stay on top of the work in the garden. It is used exclusively in the garden because it is filthy - beautifully, gloriously filthy. It gets hosed down every once in a while, but even at its cleanest it's a dirty mess. But dirty or not, I quickly became sold on the fact it kept me warm without overheating, it left my arms free to work, and most of all that it kept my neck free of drafts. So I had to get another one, one that would stay (mostly) clean.

That led to my second vest, the navy blue one. It's different from the first one not only because it's clean, it's also smaller. It feels like a snuggly hug when I wear it, which is its greatest charm. but that means when it's really cold I can't layer a fleece underneath, which led to Puffy Vest #3, a larger version of #2.

At that point I admitted to a thing for puffy vests, and shamelessly bought #4, the fancy purple checked one, for formal occasions. Victorian gentlemen wore fancy embroidered vests when they wanted to make a statement, but when I'm going out and want to look spiffy, I choose Puffy Vest #4.

I am happy to have my puffy vests these days, because it has been really cold - below freezing! This morning we woke up to crispy, frosty everything. The water in the birdbath is frozen, and we're starting to wonder whether the pond might be good for skating...

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