Sunday, January 31, 2010

And we're off!

Today was the kick-off to the 2010 growing season - yay! According to the seed packets and the gardening books and the almanac and the moon cycles, today was a good day to start onion seeds. What you see here is the fruit of an hour's work this morning: 24 pots of yellow Copra onions, 12 pots of red Redwing onions and 12 pots of Ambition shallots. That may not sound like very much, but there are 4 seeds in each pot. Which means 96, 48 and 48 beautiful onions and shallots if all goes perfectly (which it is pretty much guaranteed not to do...).

Eliot Coleman is the God of Growers, the Guru of Gardeners. He is a commercial farmer in Maine who grows vegetables organically, all year round. Yes, all year round. In Maine. He has written a few books and appeared in a few films (including our neighbour Nick's "Island on the Edge") and when people who are trying to grow their own food hear his name they have to resist the urge to genuflect.

Anyway, Eliot Coleman and his partner Barbara Damrosch, who wrote "The Garden Primer" (which is filed under B for Bible on my bookshelf) have been my teachers in this gardening venture. So when he says it's more efficient to plant onions in 4's rather than singly, I pay attention. Onions would normally get planted every 4 inches, with rows about a foot apart. Eliot recommends planting 4 seeds together, 12 inches apart. Apparently the growing onions will gently push each other out of the way and end up looking like a lovely onion bouquet, with no adverse effect on size or quality. Efficiency isn't so critical for me, since my garden is quite modest, but I kind of like this idea - it seems companionable, and friendly. It feels like I'm providing for the social needs of my seedlings.

It was fun getting my hands dirty as I prepared the soil mix (peat moss, lime, perlite, greensand, bloodmeal, colloidal phosphate, soil and compost - recipe courtesy of Mr. Eliot) in a big wheelbarrow and filled the 48 pots. It was fun being reminded how small some seeds can be, and how hard precision can be when your hands are dirty. It was fun hauling out the heating mats to go under the trays, to keep them warm in the greenhouse. It was just plain fun, from start to finish. And I wasn't the only one feeling all was right with the world. Nick our neighbour was out and about this morning, too, and we shared a chat over the fence about the seeds he had started and the seeds I had started, about fruit tree pruning and the mink he caught in a trap (he was aiming for rats, but minks can be more dangerous for his chickens and ducks) and how wonderful it was to be starting the growing season. Two like-minded friends grinning from ear to ear. We are farmers!

Friday, January 29, 2010

Finally, the bathroom

Boy, this is a blog I have been waiting to write: I am very happy to announce we have finally finished our first bathroom renovation - at least I think we are. There may be one or two details to wrap up, but it's finished enough I would be happy to have house guests use it.

Just to give you a context for our glee, I want to remind you what the bathroom used to look like. You can see some of it in the photo on top: the lovely blue "marble" laminate countertop, the oak medicine cabinet and towel rails, the fancy colonial shades on the light fixture. The concrete floor. What you can't see is the iron stains in the sink and the toilet, due to too many years on well water without a water softener and filtration system. Or the fact that the toilet wouldn't flush without intervention. Or the grungy, mildewy grout around the sink. Or the mineral deposits on the faucet and taps. This was not a nice bathroom.

But look at it now! (You can click on the second photo to see a larger version.) Marvel at its beauty, its function and form. Admire the low-flush toilet (which we got on sale) and the two women who figured out how to install it themselves. Ogle the slate floor, and the countertop and backsplash we made for about $30 worth of plywood, metal trim and leftover tile. Gasp in astonishment at the lovely mirror (which we already had) and light fixture (which we got cheap at Rona), and at the smoothness of the drywall repairs around them. Most of all, just look at that faucet and sink. They cost more than everything else in the room put together, including the floor, but that's the nice thing about doing all the work ourselves: we can afford to splurge a bit on things we really like.

I have already written about the nine million trips to Rona as we sorted out the countertop. Well, there were a bunch more trips over plumbing. The water supply lines that came with the faucet weren't long enough so we had to get new ones (Trip #1) but they gave us the wrong ones so we had to go back (Trip #2). Then the new sink's drain didn't come down as far as the old sink's drain so we had to get some PVC piping (Trip #3) but once that was in we realized the new drain was farther forward, too, which meant more piping and a new elbow were needed (Trip #4). And then, of course, when we turned on the water there was a leak coming from the drainpipe, and we had to take it all apart again to figure it out and fix it. Compared to the sink, installing the toilet was a breeze. And then right at the end when we were putting the drawers back in the vanity we realized the slate tiles we had installed on the front face of the countertop were just that much too long, and one of the drawers wouldn't close. Argh! But we just used a Dremel tool to file the tile down and voila - the drawer closes!

The only scary part? We still have two bathrooms to go... And Kim bought towel rails for one of them today.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Birth of a guitar

We may have been poking along with the bathroom (and no, we're still not done...) but that's not to say we've been wasting our time. At least Kim hasn't. She has been working hard on her first guitar-making project and Ta Da! Here it is!

She bought the parts from a guitar maker which in itself was a challenge, since there are about a zillion parts, all of which must be carefully chosen to be compatible with each other and produce the sound she was looking for. Want a discussion about the difference in tone between a maple neck and a mahogany neck? Just ask Kim! Once the parts arrived, it was up to Kim to assemble them. This is an electric guitar, which means pickups, which means wiring and soldering. Did Kim let the fact she had never soldered before and knew nothing about wiring stand in her way? Of course not! My honey is fearless about learning new things. So she read some books, checked out some videos on YouTube, consulted with the folks at Circuit City and went to it.

There were a few pitfalls along the way. Naturally she had chosen the most complicated type of pick-up available - namely, something called a P-rail, which, according to Kim, means a humbucking, P-90 and single coil all in one pick-up. Consequently, the wiring diagrams looked like spaghetti gone crazy. During her first soldering attempt she "cooked the capacitors" and had to buy new ones and try again. (Do I understand what that means? No, only that I heard some colourful language I'd never heard before.) At one point she was very regretful she had only been born with two hands, and that she hadn't thought to give this guitar making a try when she was younger and didn't need 3X reading glasses to put the minuscule connections in focus. But did she let those frustrations get her down? No! Not Kim! She persevered, and this weekend she finished it.

But questions remained. Would she electrocute herself when she plugged it in? Would she blow her amp, or all the circuits in the fuse box? Would the thing even make a sound? Alone in her room she wrestled with these questions. All I knew, upstairs in the kitchen, was that I heard a few strummed chords coming through an amp and then the joyous, jubilant voice of my darling: "It works! It works! I can't believe it works!"

Yes, it works. All three pickups work, beautifully. It not only works, it sounds great. Its music has filled the house this weekend, punctuated by exclamations of "It really works! I didn't think it would work!"

And last night in bed, after good-nights had been said and we were drifting off, the last words I heard were a sleepy "I still can't believe it works..."

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Monday, January 18, 2010

High water

It has been raining again...a lot. What a winter. And the Cowichan River is back to its high levels. This picture was taken at the bridge crossing we take to get to Duncan. You can see the road just on the other side of the river.

I think this has been more on my mind than I thought. Last night on top of the rain we had a big wind storm, and the power went out about 2 a.m. It woke us up, because all our smoke detectors chirrup when that happens. Then about half an hour later the river, which we could hear through our open bedroom window, suddenly seemed a lot louder - enough that we each did a "Are you awake? What is that noise?" And then shortly after that (sometime before 3) we started to hear what sounded like announcements being made through loudpeakers coming from the road.

Panic! I leaped out of bed, went charging downstairs for a flashlight and a raincoat, and ran to the road where car lights were shining and a small crowd of people seemed to be gathering. Had the river broken its banks? Were we being asked to evacuate?

It turned out one of our neighbours had seen and heard someone outside their house in the dark and had called the police, who had spotted someone in the forest and were calling them out on their loudspeakers. (Whoever it was didn't oblige.) Not a flooding river, but excitement all the same. Kim and I went around and made sure all our doors and windows were locked and went back to bed, but it was a while before we got back to sleep.

I have had a few conversations with Elly, our next-door neighbour, about feelings of safety out here in the country. It's something she thinks about because Nick is often gone for work, and she's in their house alone without a dog with supersonic hearing and an intimidating bark like Frankie. I haven't felt afraid of other humans - it's bears I worry about - although if our property were more secluded or remote I might worry. I suppose an event like last night might make one feel more concerned, but paradoxically I felt reassured somehow. How amazing that we can see or hear something suspicious, call the RCMP and they actually come to check it out. And that the neighbours come out in their pyjamas to make sure everything's okay. That's kind of cool.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Poking along in the bathroom

Our bathroom renovation hasn't been the site of miracles, like the garden is, but it has been the source of slow and steady progress. You may be wondering why the heck we haven't finished the darn thing yet, and I admit we have been taking our time. Some days it just seems more important to go to town for a matinee, or to spend the day playing the guitar (Kim) or working in the garden (Miriam). That's one of the wonderful things about our new life - we set the schedule.

Since we're the ones setting the schedule, it means we can change our minds along the way about what we want to do with this bathroom of ours. Kim, especially, is good at creative thinking. So if she says "What would happen if we tiled the backsplash this way instead?" we have time to mull it over, make some modifications and go get supplies. That wouldn't be possible if we'd hired someone else to do the job.

So where are we? Well, you already know we removed the stained, malfunctioning toilet, took off the ugly old countertop and sink, and installed a new plywood countertop in preparation for tiling. We also took away the old medicine cabinet and light fixture, which left huge holes in the walls. We mulled over different possibilities for a few days, all of which were designed to avoid the work of patching the holes, but we finally decided to do it right, and out came the drywalling supplies. Kim's great at drywall, and Mir's great at the friggin' and jiggin', so between us we made awesome, tight-fitting patches, including around the box for the light fixture, and then Kim worked her magic with the drywall compound to create a seamless, practically perfect wall. Voila! Then we painted, and now you'd never know there had been holes in the wall at all.

Once that was done, we went back to the countertop. Yesterday we installed the tile, which involved some tricky cutting around the opening for the sink. And we made a trip to the dump. For some reason we both sort of like going to the dump. We get to take Ruby Agnes the truck out for a spin, with Frankie sitting between us on the bench seat. We get the satisfaction of making our front yard look more like a front yard again, instead of a junk pile. The folks at the dump are always really friendly. And we get to stop at Tim's when we're done for a celebratory cup of coffee. How's that for a perfect afternoon?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Miracles at Mucky Boots

When Kim and I moved to the farm there were some things I expected and some things that took me completely by surprise. I expected to work hard, and to find that work satisfying. I expected to learn a lot and eat good food, and I have. But what I didn't expect, what took me completely by surprise, was how I have been affected by being in closer contact with nature.

I started having conversations with individual trees almost as soon as we got here, like the plucky, spindly little pieris japonica by the pond that got bent double with a heavy snow load and sideswiped by delivery trucks and come spring still managed to pop out new leaves with the best of them. I know there's a biological explanation for why snowdrops push their way through the frozen crust of last winter's snow at a time of year any other sensible plant would still be hunkered down, but to me it seems like a sign of an interesting personality. And I found it very hard to plant a few tiny seeds and then harvest bushels of food a few months later, with no other inputs except dirt, water and sunshine, without thinking at least in passing about the existence of some beautiful greater plan.

When I started to look, and allowed myself to feel, it seemed that everywhere I looked there was something to see that felt like a blessing. The beech tree by the greenhouse that glowed orange on a rainy day. The ugly-duckling stick of an asian pear tree that burst into the most gorgeous frilly white blossoms. The constantly changing display of tulips that went on and on and made me think someone was coming into the garden at night to switch them up and lead us on. The path along the backside of the pond so soft underfoot with inches of moss it was impossible not to lie down to see how it feels. The magic of an orderly row of pea shoots poking their heads through the soil.

Yesterday it stopped raining enough for me to spend a few hours outside in some late-winter clean-up of the perennial beds. At one point I laid down the rake, took a deep breath of the cool, moist air, looked around at the mist hanging in the trees that surrounded me like my own personal support crew, and was once again filled with joy and awe and peace. That's my Miracle at Mucky Boots Farm.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Making do

The greens in my vegetable garden are officially dead. For a while I thought some of them might revive after the cold snap we had in December, but I have learned that a slimy brown mess pretty much means the end. We still have a few carrots, beets and rutabagas buried under straw, but nothing that meets the fresh and green criteria. And so last week, I bought a box of salad mix from the grocery store - the first since April last year. It felt horrible, buying that box.

What to do, what to do? And then it struck me: sprouts! So out came the sprouter and now, three days later, two batches - one of pea sprouts and one of a spicy mix that will be great on sandwiches. It will be another day or two until they're ready, but when they are we'll get the homegrown, fresh from the garden (the garden in this case being the kitchen counter) goodness we've been missing. That's more than making do - sprouts are great all on their own.

We've also been making do when it comes to our current bathroom renovation. After finishing the floor in the family room (which, incidentally, meant we could move bookshelves into place so I could unpack the twenty or so boxes of books I haven't seen for about 16 months - heaven!) we turned our attention to the downstairs bathroom, spurred on by a possible visit later this month from my dad. After all, this is the guest bathroom.

The old bathroom, like much in the house when we bought it, was just plain ugly. Concrete floor, stained toilet and sink, rusty medicine cabinet, and a light fixture and towel rails that came straight from the wood-means-rustic-which-means-attractive school of design. We got the toilet out (no, Dad, we're not going to plant flowers in it) and tiled the floor with the same slate tile that runs down the hallway. Then we disconnected the sink and wrestled the old blue fake marble (does real marble even come in blue?) laminate countertop out the door and into the go-to-the-dump pile that keeps getting bigger. Then we had to decide what to put it its place. Granite would be nice, but we wanted to do this as inexpensively as possible. Our next thought was a ready-made nicer looking laminate countertop from Rona that we would cut to size. But it just wasn't a fitting enough backdrop for the gorgeous sink we snagged. No good. Back to Rona. Next idea: use the same slate as we'd used on the floor. But when we laid it out, just to see, it looked like the floor, only on the countertop. No good. Back to Rona. We came home with some smaller porcelain tile made to look like slate. Too dark. No good. Back to Rona. We knew we wanted a smaller tile, but everything we saw that we liked was really expensive. How expensive? Enough that the price we thought was for the entire box was actually for each individual tile. No good. Back to Rona to return the tile - we are now on a first-name basis with 90% of the employees of the Duncan store.

Then Kim had her brilliant idea. We have lots of leftover slate tile, and a wicked wet saw for cutting it, so why not do just that and make our own smaller tiles? That's making do. That's a new countertop for just the cost of the plywood, since all the other materials are leftovers. Of course before we get too tickled with ourselves we actually have to complete the project...

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Country dark

Nighttime is different out here. Our trip to Toronto reminded us how bright the night is in the city, with streetlights and billboards and marquees. That was part of the attraction, when we lived there - there was always company, always activity, always the bright lights of the city.

When we moved to Victoria we were surprised by how dark the nights on the Saanich Peninsula were, and we even lived in a little neighbourhood with streetlights. But there seemed to be about half the number we were used to, and their light was a soft, muted yellow. And the quiet at night was new - on the odd occasion when Frankie had to go out in the middle of the night it was so quiet our neighbour's soft snoring floated to me through his open bedroom window.

Well, nights at Mucky Boots are even quieter, and even darker. It's so dark (that sounds like the start of a bad joke) the gate becomes a challenge late at night: it's easy to find and open with car headlights shining on it, but when you can't see your feet, getting back to the car without falling over a rock is something worth celebrating. And then once we're through the gate and parked, if the moon is hiding, finding our way from the car over the lawn, up the stairs and to the front door becomes a feeling-with-our-feet, balancing-with-our-arms kind of dance, which turns into a comedy if along the way we drop our keys.

With the days so short, and dark coming so early we have to be aware of where we are come 5:00 or so. One afternoon Kim was so caught up with sorting and organizing in the workshop dusk came and went without her noticing, and when she'd had enough she couldn't make it back to the house it was so dark. Thanks goodness for walkie-talkies.

Santa got a few hints and we found two flashlights each in our stockings this year. My favourite is a hands-free version, on a stretchy band that fits around my head. It's great for reading in bed, although if I get up to pee with it on, the wavering light as I move across the room makes me feel like I'm in a remake of the Blair Witch Project.

On the other hand, when the moon is full and the skies are clear, the moonlight can be so bright there are shadows (oh - that's what a moon shadow is!). There is a big window and a skylight by our bed, and seeing the moonlight streaming in one or the other on such nights is worth waking up and fumbling for glasses in order to see better. And that doesn't even take into account the stars - oh, the stars, zillions of them.

It's hard to take a picture of the dark, so here's a photo of Frankie meeting the no-electric-heat challenge. Our goal was to make it through the winter on the heat generated by our wood stove alone, without turning on any baseboard heaters (except in the music room, where regulated heat is important for Kim's guitars). We were doing so well until we started renovations in the family room, and had to disconnect the stove in order to tile underneath it. And then we left for a week, and couldn't count on the cats to stoke the stove while we were gone. I figure none of that really counts as a failure - more like a sabbatical. We're back on track now.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy New Year!

Remember the post about appreciating the winter-visible bones of the garden? Here are more bones: a curly hazel, to be exact. How gorgeous is this? With all those crazy corkscrew curls I can see why they call it a "witch" hazel, although I'd rather think of it as pre-Raphaelite.

Kim and I returned from our Christmas trip to Toronto happy to be back home, back where it's quiet and green and calm. The family room floor was waiting for us, so we spent the last three days installing the floor and painting and installing the baseboard. Given Kim's bad knees it was me who did most of the installing of the floor, which was sort of fun although it left me feeling like I'd had an 8-hour session with a Thigh Master machine.

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