Thursday, December 30, 2010

Margaret and Mary visit Mucky Boots

Margaret and Mary drove up from Victoria today to have lunch with us. Margaret comes regularly, and sometimes brings our friend Mary with her, and we just love their visits. We love the great conversation and easy laughter, we soak up the encouragement and all the "oooohs" and "aaaahs" at our latest construction project, and their visits are always the perfect excuse to lay out a great meal for sharing.

This visit had a secondary purpose: Margaret wanted to collect some eggs. She grew up on a dairy farm in Yorkshire and has fond memories of egg gathering. Yesterday we gave the hens a pep talk to encourage them to produce some especially lovely eggs for her today, and they obliged.

The eggs were lovely, but Hector stole the show, letting himself be picked up by both our visitors for a cuddle and a photo op. Good boy, Hector.

On a completely different note, we had a frosty night here last night, and all day the temperature hovered around freezing. Kim found the strangest frosty-snow-like stuff growing on some pieces of wood in the chicken yard this morning. It looks like hair, or very fine feathers, and it's definitely frost because it melted away to nothing when we touched it.

After marvelling at it and taking some photos this morning we left it on the porch and discovered this afternoon that it had continued to grow all day. Has anyone ever seen this before? And what on earth causes it?

Added note: Kim at Golden Pines is bang on: it's called "frost flowers" and here's what the Guide to Frost says about it:

Some of the stranger ice formations you're likely to find in the woods are called "frost flowers" or "feather frost". A typical example looks like a small puff-ball of cotton candy, a few inches across, made up of clusters of thin, curved ice filaments.

Frost flowers usually grows on a piece of water-logged wood. It's something of a rare find, meaning that conditions have to be just so before it will form.

Not much has been written on this unusual phenomenon, and to my knowledge it has never been reproduced in a controlled laboratory environment. It appears that the ice filaments are essentially pushed out from pores in the wood as they freeze.

It's something of a misnomer to call this frost, by the way, since it freezes from liquid water, not water vapor.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Welcome back friend

My shadow. I haven't seen this for a long time. The sun is out today, and the forecasters promise about a week of sunnier than normal and colder than normal temperatures. I'd say that's a fair exchange.

We've been busy working on the house - specifically painting and installing baseboard in the living room and finally, after two years, in the bedroom upstairs. It always amazes me what a difference a coat of paint can do, and after years of living with the raggedy edges of baseboard-less rooms, it feels so nice to see something more finished.

While Kim takes the lead on the baseboard front today, I've been getting ready for the return of more friends: Margaret and Mary, who are coming for lunch tomorrow. So I've been making veggie pate and bread, and a vegetable soup with tomatoes, red beets, yellow beets, carrots, garlic, onions and leeks all grown this year at Mucky Boots.

A visit from friends, hot soup on a cold day, my sweetheart trotting up and down the stairs with pieces of baseboard, Frankie playing B-A-L-L in the sunshine: that's home to me.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Walk in the woods

Kim and I have been making the best of this strange Christmas we're having, with the unexpected cancellation of our trip to Toronto to see my family. But even though some parts of this holiday aren't what we had planned, other parts could have been predicted - like the eating too much chocolate part. So yesterday, after opening our gifts and paying a Christmas visit to the chickens in the orchard, we put on our walking boots and headed for the path by the river.

I think all our neighbours must still have been snuggled by the fire at home because we didn't run into anyone on our walk. So it felt quite otherwordly: quiet, misty, mossy and a tiny bit spooky because of the fresh bear-prints-in-the-snow Kim encountered on her last walk here.

No bears this time, thank goodness.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Looking for beauty

I'm really glad to see the other side of the winter solstice - if the days had become any shorter I was ready to start hitch-hiking towards the southern hemisphere. It has been (typically) grey and dreary - and so dim, even during the day, that it's hard to keep my point-and-shoot flash from going off when I take photos outside.

I went looking for some beauty today, something to keep me from feeling as gloomy as the weather: we have had to cancel our Christmas trip to see my family because of a sinus condition I can't resolve before the flight. So I tried to feel grateful it's just my sinuses and nothing worse, to count the blessings of friends happy to set two more places at their Christmas dinner, to be joyful on Frankie's behalf that he won't have to spend the holidays in a kennel. And I went outside to see if my sleeping, rooted friends in the garden could bring a bit of peace to my heart.

Of course they did.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Taking stock and looking ahead

Yes, it's that time of year: the vegetable garden looks a sight, thanks to a fall clean-up that didn't quite get finished, a flock of chicken tourists that made themselves at home before the construction of Chicken Alley, and the usual ravages of a soggy and snowy winter. But the first seed catalogues arrived in the mail last week and in my mind this garden is already next summer's verdant landscape of healthy and productive vegetables, herbs and berries.

First, though, a moment of reflection on the growing season past:
  • Most spectacular success: the carrots. They were fabulous. Row covers are definitely the way to go.

  • Most spectacular failure: the potatoes. For every chunk of potato I planted we got one or two small little nuggets. The plants never flowered, and withered and died way sooner than they should have - both in the two beds they were planted in, and also in the ten big tubs. I can only think it must have something to do with the fact I mulched with straw - apparently a standard practice in the east, but Carol Deppe says in The Resilient Gardener that it doesn't work in the Pacific Northwest. I won't do that again.
  • Most conspicuous absence: the summer squash. We harvested two small zucchinis. That's it.
  • Most ubiquitous presence: the peas. After the mice's shenanigans, we found them sprouting everywhere.

  • Bye-bye to: (1) Radishes. I don't much like them, and neither does Kim. I think I was only growing them because they are something to harvest from the garden in the early days of the season when I'm just dying to harvest something. (2) Artichokes. We won't do away with them, but they're taking up a huge amount of valuable real estate for very little food pay-off. So we'll transplant them to the perennial garden where they can look beautiful, defend themselves against the deer, and we can still eat the occasional artichoke when the fancy strikes us.
  • Newcomers: I tried growing cucumbers, peppers and melons for the first time. Then we had a record-breaking cold and wet spring and early summer - not so good for plants that need heat, heat, heat. We harvested a couple of small cucumbers - and they were tasty enough that I'll try again. I also grew cabbage for the first time, and even though the outer leaves had to be discarded because of disgusting slug-like things, what was left was great.

  • Kim's 2010 food obsession: blueberries. Our first year it was potatoes. This year it was blueberries, with two new long stretches of bushes, and newly pampered and productive older bushes to show for it. It was a good year for blueberries, but not for blueberry preserves, because we ate them all. Yum.
  • Lessons learned: (1) It's really important to cure winter squash properly if you want them to last in storage. Our delayed growing season meant the winter squash needed every possible day to ripen, which meant I ran smack up against the start of the cool, wet autumn, which meant I should have brought the squash inside to cure where it was warmer and drier. But I didn't, and they went moldy. Fortunately we could eat them before they got too bad. (2) Don't believe everything you read in a book, and if you must, be sure it's written by an author in a growing region similar to your own (see spectacular failure, above). (3) Don't overplant the peas, or you'll end up with a beautifully tendrilled chaos that makes it too hard to actually find the peas for picking.

"Now onto the new," she says, rubbing her hands in anticipation. Introducing the 2011 Mucky Boots Vegetable Garden.
  • What I'll plant more of: winter squash, cabbage, dried beans and yellow storage onions. I devoted half a bed to the yellow onions this year (as well as additional space for red onions, green onions and leeks), and even though we harvested a whole bunch of them, they're almost all gone. Onions are dead cheap to buy in the grocery store, but there's no comparison to home-grown. Two years in a row ours have been crispy, juicy and incredibly flavourful. We want more.

  • What I'll plant less of: summer squash. Even though I was initially disappointed that our summer squash went AWOL this year, I realized I didn't actually miss all that zucchini and patty pan squash. So this year I'll plant just one of each.
  • New plants for 2011: broccoli raab, Brussels sprouts and Napa cabbage, plus some winter squash varieties I haven't tried before.
  • Best recycled gardening resolution: fertilize. All the beds get treated to lovely fresh compost in the spring, but after that the plants have had to pretty much fend for themselves. You might remember I resolved to do a better job with fish fertilizer, and compost and nettle teas, and I did do it this, maybe once.
  • Most eagerly anticipated crop: the gooseberries, which is pretty ironic given they were this close to being dug up. But the lone 3/4-filled jar of gooseberry and lavender jelly I made has changed my mind forever about these berries.
And now I'm off to the garden to clean up after the chickens and dream of spring.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Mucky Boots still life

When Kim and I first saw this place we were enchanted - by the house that looked like a cabin, by the beauty of the property, and by the fact that the farm infrastructure was already in place.

The problem with being enchanted is you can't be objective. So we didn't really see a few significant problems: that the outbuildings either hadn't been finished or hadn't been maintained and would need significant repair. That the lovely deep verandah and surrounding coniferous trees would mean we would be fighting for light inside the house. And, especially, that the house needed work from top to bottom.

All the bathrooms. The kitchen. Almost all the flooring and baseboard. Both staircases. Every light fixture. Every wall would need painting.

What were we thinking? As Kim said the other day, "Were we stupid?!"

This came up when Kim ripped the carpet from the staircase that goes up to the top floor. It was dirty and stained, and carpet isn't very practical in a family with hairy pets and dust allergies. But we haven't been able to come to a decision about what to do instead.Finishing stairs can be tricky, and probably more fiddly a job than we want to take on. We'll probably end up doing a bit of patching of the rough lumber, then paint it with a really thick, durable floor paint and install a runner up the center. Ditto for the staircase down to the lower level.

But that's going to have to wait a bit, because the biggest project still waiting for us is the master bath upstairs. There is no bathtub. The floor is old lino. The toilet, sink and shower are hopelessly iron-stained from the days before the house had a water treatment system. We're looking at gutting it and starting from scratch, and I am happy to say we are smart enough to let the experts do most of this job. And there's no point finishing the staircase until the construction traffic up and down the stairs is done.

And at the same time we're getting estimates on the bathroom and trying to make decisions about the two staircases, we're trying to finish up the painting and baseboard on the main floor. Not to mention the powder room we got to the drywall stage before spring called us outside.

Hence the "Were we stupid?!" remark.

When people imagine our lives here they think of natural beauty, of a still-life composed of fresh veggies, fruit and flowers. Okay, there's some of that. But here's the real Mucky Boots still life.

I used to feel stressed about all this, but I don't any more. There is still lots to be done, but with the exception of not having a bath tub, everything is now functional and comfortable. Or maybe it's because we've already done things I never imagined we could do, so what's left doesn't seem so scary.

It just feels like a big adventure. A messy one, but kind of fun all the same.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Chicken Alley

By now you probably have an appreciation for how dedicated Kim is to her chickens. She feeds them. She scrubs out their water fountains. She researches shelter designs. She plants fields of rye for them. She studies chicken psychology. She builds things: enclosures, gates, nest boxes, chicken tractors. Where her chickens are concerned, no effort is too great, and no problem unsolvable.

Take the issue of pasturing, for example. "Pasturing" means providing chickens access to fresh grass and weeds and bugs, usually in a pasture (go figure...). Pasturing is good for the health of chickens, and for the nutritional value of their eggs. That was why Kim planted the field of rye in the fall, to make sure the chickens had access to grass even after they had reduced their chicken yard to dirt.

Well, that field of rye didn't last very long. It was so tasty, the chickens demolished it in no time, and Kim was forced to look elsewhere for a pasture. The problem is, we can't let the chickens roam free because of the two cats, one dog, and family of resident eagles.

Quite naturally, Kim's eye fell on my carefully tended vegetable garden, now mostly quiet except for leeks, beets, carrots and rutabagas still in the ground waiting to be eaten. "Naturally" because it's right next door to the chicken yard, because it's fenced, and because all the paths are lovely long, lush grass. Not to mention the fallow beds are probably full of weeds and bugs.

So Kim built one of her ingenious chicken doors in the fence between the chicken yard and the vegetable garden, and with the help of some "Here chickie, chickie, chickie" calls and a few handfuls of judiciously scattered scratch, she trained the flock to scoot through the door into my vegetable garden that is a veritable Garden of Eden.

Was a Garden of Eden. It's a mess now. Those chickens are very good at scratching and digging, which is just great unless you have raised beds. Now those beds are very well cultivated and almost certainly weed free, but the top two inches of soil is scattered all over the surrounding ground.

So I protested, and Kim's eye turned to the orchard, which is on the other side of the vegetable garden. The big problem: how to get the chickens from the coop to the orchard. The solution: Chicken Alley.

Kim used some plastic fencing and a few spare poles to create a pathway from the chicken yard...

...all the way through the vegetable garden to the orchard. It's like a chicken chute: when the door gets opened the chickens run through the chute as fast as they can, eager to get to the green grass of the orchard at the other end.

Once they're in the orchard there is food and water and the chicken tractor to shelter in if it's a rainy day. The doors at either end of Chicken Alley stay open through the day so the chickens can go back and forth between the orchard and the chicken yard, to lay an egg in a proper nest box, for example. I was concerned they would just fly over the fencing used to make Chicken Alley, because it's only three feet high. But after a few days of commuting, the birds now seem to view the chute as just that, and have stopped making excursions into the vegetable garden.

Clever chickies. Clever Kim.

Monday, December 6, 2010


It's still difficult to get a focused photo of him because he still runs away from the hens, but Hector, our hitherto mute rooster, crowed! It sounded a little weird - sort of strangled - but it was an official crow.

Our sweet boy is growing up!

[For those of you wondering about the odd title for this post, just fill in the missing letters for yourself and then take a few moments to ponder how many creepy internet crawlers might find their way here because of that title...]

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Perfect day

We put a new roof on the chicken coop yesterday. The existing roof wasn't that old, but it didn't have enough overhang to protect the joists, and as a result damp was seeping through to the interior of the coop. Not good for our chickies.

As usual, it wasn't as simple as putting on the metal roofing panels. First we had to play lumberjack, and cut down the junky alders that were growing right up against the back of the coop. Which meant a trip to the chain saw store to get our blade sharpened. And we had to special order the roofing panels because we needed an odd size. But this morning we got to it, and it only took a couple of hours. We love metal roofing.

Plus, we had help. The chickens were cheering us on from ground-level and, as you can see, one even climbed the ladder to offer her help. What a nice chickie-chickie.

Or maybe she was just lodging a complaint about all the noise interfering with her laying...

Then in the afternoon I was part of the host choir for a sing-along performance of the Messiah. There is something holy (and I say that as a non-religious person) about people singing together - and what gorgeous music to be singing.

So it was a perfect day, one that feels symbolic of my new life: new roof on the coop in the morning, singing the Messiah in the afternoon. How lucky can one person be?

Friday, December 3, 2010

Guess who came to dinner

That's right: Big Boy. Only he wasn't a dinner guest - he was the dinner.

Big Boy ended his walk on Death Row on Tuesday, when we took him to the local chicken slaughter house. Even though this was a return trip for us, it wasn't a whole lot easier than the first time.

When we brought him home I looked at the skinny, long-legged carcass in the plastic bag, thought of his three brothers in the chest freezer, and deliberately put him in the fridge instead. No more delaying: it was time to see if we could actually eat a chicken we raised.

I did a bit of research before I started cooking. According to the experts, since Buff Orpingtons aren't meat birds, Big Boy was likely to be scrawny (which he was) and tough, which meant I had to chose my cooking method carefully. I opted for Coq au Vin (the two-day Alton Brown version) and got started yesterday.

The first step was to cut the carcass into portion-sized pieces. I have broken down chickens before, but never like this: a full 30 minutes of wrestling with kitchen shears and sharp knives later, Big Boy was finally in pieces. And what funny pieces. I have never seen such long skinny drumsticks, and such concave breasts. The meat was very dark, and those thighs! Muscular hardly says it.

After 90 minutes of preliminary preparation yesterday, an overnight sleepover in a winy marinade and three hours in the oven today, we finally sat down - with some trepidation - to a Big Boy dinner. We cheated a bit by stripping the meat off the bones, so we weren't faced with a leg in our dinner bowls, and that made a difference. The meat's texture was more like beef than chicken: it was tender from its long slow cooking, but with long fibers like a piece of roast beef. And it had a much stronger taste than the chicken we're used to eating.

The final verdict: we'll eat the other three roosters in our freezer, but I don't think either of us will really look forward to it, just from a culinary perspective. But we both feel like we passed the farmer test, and will look with open minds at the possibility of raising meat birds (which should produce plumper, more chicken-like meat) in the spring.

Thanks, Big Boy. You'll make good leftovers.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Time for new boots

These are the boots that have hung on our gate since we settled on the name Mucky Boots Farm for this place.

They aren't even farmer's boots - they're sailor's boots - but they're what we had at the time. They were bright yellow and welcoming, and looked great with the fake daisies we filled them with.

Now, after more than a year of all kinds of weather they are faded to a sickly yellow-beige, they're cracking, and every time it rains the weight of the water filling up the boots rips them a little more from the cord we hung them from.

Time for a farm-gate-boot makeover.

To that end, I have been looking for some boots with attitude at discount and thrift stores, and haven't found anything with enough personality. After all, the boots on the gate are the first thing visitors see and the easiest way for them to identify our property, so Plain Jane green or black rubber boots won't quite do.

Then, probably in response to the recent bad weather, a local store got in a new order of rubber boots, so we went to check them out. And there I was with Kim, who was buying serious waterproofed, insulated, rugged-soled chicken-mucking rubber boots, and what was I buying?


Welcome to Mucky Boots Farm!

Friday, November 26, 2010


We've had a week of not weather, but Weather. Snow. More snow. Freezing temperatures. Still more snow. Even colder temperatures. Okay, we're wimps, but still - it has been an interesting week.

Overnight the snow turned to rain and today it's about 5C, which means the melt is on. Sitting inside drinking tea, I was puzzled by the loud, muffled whumps coming from outside, until I realized the trees were all shedding their heavy, wet snow burdens. I could feel their relief. And when I went out to the porch to have a closer look, the sun coming through the trees dazzled my eyes. I felt like a bat, or a vampire. That's what happens when you spend a winter on Vancouver Island - you forget what the sun looks like...

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Okay, I know we southern-Vancouver-Islanders don't have much to complain about in the weather department...but it's cold!

Normal temperatures here through the winter are about 5 degrees Celsius (which translates into 40 degrees Fahrenheit), but last night it got down to -10. Brrr! So with the snow we've had, and now the cold, the weather is all anyone wants to talk about. Me included.

Kim was worried about the chickens, of course, so two days ago we put a little heater in the coop. This morning when we went to check on the flock the temperature was a couple of degrees below freezing, which seemed quite manageable for them - although all their water was frozen. We still haven't figured that one out -today Kim has put the heat mats from the greenhouse underneath the fountains, to see if that will make enough of a difference.

That wasn't all the water that was frozen this morning - once I had filled the coffee pot (thank goodness - I can't imagine how we would have dealt with an emergency if there hadn't been coffee) the water from the tap slowed to a dribble and then disappeared altogether.

Based on our horrible experience our first winter here, our first thought was frozen or cracked pipes in the pumphouse, but we have a heater there that's supposed to kick in when the temperature reaches freezing. We headed out, expecting to see water everywhere, but it was dry. The only problem seemed to be that the pressure tank was empty - so why wasn't it filling?

We cranked up the heater in case something to do with the pump itself was just too cold to work, and sure enough, in just a few minutes we had water again. Phew.

Funny how we take things for granted. Doing without water for all of 10 minutes has been enough to make toilets flushing and water flowing from the tap seem like the best thing ever.

Monday, November 22, 2010

A messy chicken is a junco's best friend

Who knew that when we hung the disco dance streamers in the chicken yard, we were inviting the whole neighbourhood over for a party?

The chicken yard is turning into Grand Central Station for the local overwintering birds, especially the Dark-Eyed Juncos. I don't know where they normally hang out, but right now they're thick in all the nearby trees, they're swooping in and out of the coop, and they have even been seen having a leisurely meal in the chicken tractor in the orchard.

Why such an explosion? Because our chickens are messy, messy eaters. They flick their feed left and right searching for the best bits, and in the process an awful lot of feed ends up on the ground - fair game for a hungry junco.

At some point we might have to do something about it, but right now we're just enjoying the party.

(Image from here.)

Saturday, November 20, 2010


We don't get much snow here on southern Vancouver Island, and when we do the normal functioning of society tends to grind to a halt. Part of that is because the snow is usually wet and the temperature right around freezing, so the weight of a car turns it instantly to ice. But I like to think that the other part is that it's just so gosh-darned beautiful when it snows.

True to the weather forecast that has been circulating for a few days, it snowed last night - about eight inches where we are (which means maybe two or three everywhere else...). We woke this morning to trees and fence lines coated in white.

Kim has kept the chickens in the chicken yard today, where the thick overhanging evergreen branches have kept most of the snow from reaching the ground.

I think Pee Wee is quite proud of how nicely the snow sets off the red of his comb and wattles...

...or maybe he is just wondering what happened to the disco dance party.

Thursday, November 18, 2010


We are having (another) grey, drizzly day here at Mucky Boots - with a bit of excitement this morning when the cold rain turned to slushy snow. Frankie acquired a white coat, the chickens were very perplexed, and Kim and I got cold noses and fingers working outside.

There was an extra bit of excitement when we looked down the lane from the coop to the house and saw flashing lights and two men in work gear with a chain saw, apparently cutting down one of our trees. We flew down the path waving our arms and hollering - and it turned out they were from the hydro company and they weren't cutting down a tree, they were drilling a hole in our power pole to check for rot.

The nice thing about the incident (other than learning our pole is rot-free) was that my attention was caught by some beautiful red berries growing in that part of the garden. The holly berries are a show-stopper, of course, but also glowing red in the greyness of the day were these berries on the winged euonymous.

Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while know I have been trying to rehabilitate my feelings about our winged euonymous bushes. They look too much like alien stick insects for my comfort.

But this fall's display of colour started to change my mind, and now these tiny red berries have convinced me it's time to get over my hangups and appreciate these bushes for real.
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