Wednesday, April 28, 2010


Today felt like the start of summer to me. Yes, I know it's only the end of April. But today the sun shone and the air felt warm on my bare white arms newly freed from their winter fleece. The birds sang, the bees buzzed, and I could practically hear the rustling as everything grew around me. It was a great day.

Today was also the day I officially declared my arthritis flare-up over and went back to work in the garden. A good thing, too, because Kim is now out of commission for three weeks as she recovers from an eight-month-old injury to her elbow that she is now getting treated for. It seems we are both learning about patience and human frailty this spring.

I overdid it a bit - typically - but tonight I'm feeling happy tired, not miserable tired, which is a good sign. I potted up a whole mess of growing seedlings, took out half the shelves in the greenhouse, transplanted about half the tomato plants into the greenhouse beds, transplanted all the summer and winter squash, the spinach, chard, and cabbages into the garden, seeded some new radishes, cilantro and basil, and found a way to keep the floating row cover from smothering my newly emerging carrot seedlings. (You may remember that one of my 2010 gardening resolutions was to grow better carrots - the floating row cover is keeping them safe from the carrot rust fly.) I spread compost on the bed where I'll seed beets in about a week, I found homes for the chamomile, calendula and nasturtiums I've been growing, I played a bit of B-A-L-L with Frankie, and arranged the potted sunflowers along the new orchard fence to help it look more like a cloister (that's the perfect word, Paula!) and less like a detention centre. I stacked empty trays and put away empty seedling pots, gave everything a good drink, and finished off the day by sitting on the verandah to enjoy the sunshine. Like I said, it was a great day.

When I was looking for places to put the herbs I've been growing, I decided to just place them, in their pots, in various nooks and crannies in the vegetable garden. I'll have to find more permanent homes for the perennials, like the thyme and chamomile. But I may just leave the calendula and nasturtiums in their pots - I like the idea of being able to move them around as the plants around them grow, and as other spots in the garden open up and need a bit of colour.

One of the best things was realizing how late the light is holding these days. This picture was taken at 7 this evening - gone are the days when Kim had to call me on the walkie-talkie from the workshop because it got dark so early she couldn't make her way back to the house.

It isn't just me who is enjoying the verandah these days - we have a family of birds nesting in a gap in the eaves. The parents have been swooping away every time we open the door, and a few days ago we began hearing the faint peeping of the newly hatched little ones. Now, three days later, that faint peeping has turned into lusty, insistent demands for food at every hour. Those parents must be run ragged.

Sunday, April 25, 2010


Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while know how much pride Kim and I have taken in doing as many things ourselves as we can: bathroom renovations, flooring installations, workshop siding, new garden beds, hauling rocks from the quarry. Well, there are some times when it's just more sensible to stand back and let the experts do what they do best.

Yesterday we had a new fence put in to help us protect our growing orchard from deer. We tried caging each tree, but the cages are so cumbersome when it comes to mowing and weeding and mulching and fertilizing, and we questioned their ability to really protect the young trees from a determined deer. So we decided a while ago to put in a new line of fencing. The orchard is already fenced on three sides; two of those sides would have to be heightened by a couple of feet, but that's a job we could manage ourselves. All we needed was an 88 foot straight run of deer fencing. We had a very brief conversation with our friends at Cowichan Rental about renting an auger to dig the holes for the posts, but they very kindly and quickly talked us out of it: some tools are really meant for experts.

So we called around a bit, and everyone referred us to Gordie, who is a retired logger and heads a crew with three other retired guys. They work ten long days in a row, go fishing or camping for six days, then come back to start up all over again.

They arrived yesterday morning just after 8, and although we somehow thought they'd be around for most of the day, they were gone by 10. And man, were they a smoothly functioning crew. They got right to work, every man with a job to do. And did they ever have some cool tools! The best was a gizmo that attached to the front of their tractor, that pounded in the fence posts with 30,000 pounds of pressure. Our rocky Glenora soil was no match for this mean machine.

Runner-up in the cool tool contest was the metal bar they used to stretch the fencing material across the posts for nailing. It looked like a medieval torture device, but it sure did the job: the fencing was locked in with metal spikes, then the bar was hoisted to a vertical position and attached to the tractor with a big chain. They backed up the tractor, pulling the fencing taut, and then all the guys got out their hammers and started pounding in staples to attach the fencing to the posts. Lickety-split.

Now that it's done we're having a few second thoughts, mostly because it makes the fruit trees in look like they're in some kind of orchard prison. But Kim has some ideas for a homespun twiggy gate that we hope will tone down the penitentiary aesthetic.

Friday, April 23, 2010


I've always had a thing for history. But beyond knowing a little about the two other sets of owners our house has had in its 16 year history, we don't know much about this piece of land. A little glimpse of that missing history found the light of day yesterday.

Our orchard is at the back of the property, where the fruit trees fight for sunlight with much bigger maples, red cedars, firs, alders and hemlocks. Last spring we had some trees limbed and one taken down in an attempt to get more light into critical parts of the garden. The hardest decision concerned two hemlock trees that were growing out of the stump of a big old growth cedar - they put a few of the trees in the orchard in shade all through the morning. Eventually we decided just to top them as a compromise, but it became apparent as the growing year progressed and we added more trees to the orchard that the hemlocks had to go.

So yesterday Bud came with his crew and took them down. We were sad to see them go, but very happy about the new light that flooded into the orchard as they came down. And when they were gone we had a chance to really appreciate the old growth cedar stump they were growing out of. There's a slice of history! You can see the notches the lumberjacks cut for the boards they stood on as they cut the tree down. Some of those notches are 8 or 10 feet off the ground, which must have required something of a balancing act. We wonder how many years ago that was, and whether they had gas saws by then or were still doing all the cutting by hand. It's fun to imagine what the property looked like then: no people, no fences, no garden beds, no buildings. no property lines.

On a side note, the young fellow in Bud's crew who actually climbed the trees to cut them down is a recent immigrant from the south of England, where he learned his trade. Somehow that doesn't quite make sense to us, but he certainly seemed to know what he was doing. And he was thrilled about the cedar stump, and being so close to its history.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Seedling progress

Patience has been a necessary virtue the last ten days or so as I have waited for this nasty arthritis flare-up to subside. I'm doing much better, but I have learned from past experience that pushing things too far too fast is the best way to prolong the misery. (Not that I've always practised what I've learned, but that's another story...)

So I've been trying really hard to not use my shoulders in the garden this week. When you think about it, that doesn't leave much. No digging. No hoeing. No weeding. No mowing the grass. No zipping around with the string trimmer. No building garden beds or bean trellises. No mulching new perennial beds. What's left, for heaven's sake?

What's left is puttering in the greenhouse. Five gallon pots are too heavy for me right now, but little seedling pots are exactly my speed. So, with lots of time on my hands, my greenhouse is full of the most pampered, happy seedlings I've ever grown. Seven varieties of tomatoes. Red onions, yellow onions, Welsh onions, leeks and shallots. Swiss chard, spinach, and cabbage. Four varieties of winter squash and two of summer squash. Four kinds of lettuce. Three kinds of beans and a few melons just for fun. Parsley, basil, chamomile, calendula and lavender (yes, I have two tiny lavender plants I started from seed, which may be my greatest accomplishment ever). Two varieties of echinacea, bergamot, marigolds, hollyhocks, sunflowers and nasturtiums. All grown from seed. And that's in addition to the Chinese greens, arugula, peas, carrots, radishes and green onions out in the garden.

According to my records from last year, we're ahead with the onions and tomatoes, and quite far behind with the spinach and chard. I'm not sure how that happened, given our spring this year has been so much milder than last year. But there you go: shoulders and chard, each on their own schedule. No sense pushing either.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Tulip library

When I was little I really wanted to be a librarian. I used to arrange my books in various orders (colour and size, and then when I became more familiar with alphabetical order, the more usual ways). I'd make little pockets for the front of my books, with sign-out cards, and invite my family to visit my library and borrow books. (It seems to me I charged five cents a book, which is maybe why I don't recall having many customers...)

I think that instinct to catalogue and organize is resurfacing, because I have felt compelled this spring to take pictures of every plant growing in the garden (maybe you've noticed). For example, the tulips - at least the ones blooming right now. I seem to remember from last year that the tulip show went on and on, and the later varieties included some parrot tulips that were so outrageously frilly it didn't seem they could possibly be real. But even now, early in the season, there's an amazing diversity of colour and shape. So here's what's blooming today - in no particular order, and I promise I won't charge you five cents.

Sunday, April 18, 2010


The Pacific dogwood is flowering, which is almost enough to make up for my lousy week. In our old neighbourhood on the Saanich Peninsula, the neighbourhood with the manicured lawns and sculpted perennial beds, these were carefully cultivated specimen trees. When they flowered we would drive past the few nearby and admire them and wish we could have one, too.

In our new neighbourhood they grow wild, and are everywhere. Nobody takes care of them, and they still put forth masses of creamy, buttery yellow flowers. It reminds me of when I first came from Toronto and was astounded that I could pick buckets of wild blackberries by the roadside for free. And they were even better than the plastic-packaged blackberries I bought at the grocery store, half-a-pint for $5.99. I was amazed by the bounty then, and I feel just as surrounded by dogwood riches today.

Friday, April 16, 2010


I have been having a rough week - my inflammatory arthritis is flaring. It's always a lottery to see which joints will be affected, and this week it has been my shoulders. Flare-ups usually last 24-36 hours, but this has been going on since Sunday. It hurts. It really, really hurts.

I've got about 10 years' experience with this, so I know what to do to minimize pain and the possibility of joint damage: heat and not using the affected joints at all. Heat has been no problem since I invested in the world's best moist-heat heating pad. But immobility - I have a real problem with that, especially since there's so much I want to be doing in the garden. And the longer any flare-up lasts, the more I start fearing that it won't ever end, and I won't be able to keep up with the garden, and we'll have to move back to the city and live in a condo and eat packaged food from Walmart.

I know my mind is my worst enemy sometimes. So today I decided to treat this episode as a reminder from the universe that sometimes we have to stop doing, and just appreciate what already is instead.

Here's what I found to appreciate.

The big perennial bed around the crab apple tree is a marvel of coexistence to me. There are snowdrops, chives, aconite, fawn lilies, tulips, rhubarb and hostas all living happily together. And each of them looks more marvelous in proximity to the others.

Nearby is a tiny, spindly star magnolia tree we planted last spring. It didn't do very well last year, and we have been thinking of moving it, but there, today, were the first blossoms beginning to open.

This Japanese maple hasn't had an ugly day in its entire life. Bare-branched, just leafing out, in full green leaf, or in autumn glory, this tree is gorgeous from beginning to end.

The forest beds are full of ferns. Is there any plant more Dr. Seuss looking than this?

Also in the forest beds, the first trillium are flowering...

...and the fawn lilies have reached the English-barrister-wig part of their life cycle.

By the pond the marsh marigolds and these double primula are flowering. William came for a visit, to see what I was doing.

Even the bumper crop of dandelions in the chicken yard looks beautiful.

Easiest to appreciate: the classic Aussie smile.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


The 18 chicks that were supposed to arrive at the end of March, and then mid-April, are still not here, and won't be until June. At this point we're not quite ready to believe we'll even get them then. The reason? Apparently the hatchery just can't keep up with the demand. We are very disappointed, as there's now no chance of our own home-grown (home-laid?) eggs before next spring, since if young hens don't start laying before winter, they won't at all until spring.

I'm trying to figure out why I am so disappointed. The best I can figure, I was counting on those chickens to make me feel like a real farmer. That's lower-case-f-farmer, not capital-f-farmer - I'm not entirely delusional. But somehow the chickens were going to make us official.

We've hunted around for local alternatives, but it's clear that for every chick looking for a home, there are about 10 homes looking for chicks. There are more options for buying adult hens, but they have a limited egg-laying lifespan, and without experience at figuring out how old a chicken is, we don't feel confident spending money on it. (For those of you who are interested, a hen's age can be determined by looking to see which of various body parts have been bleached, which happens sequentially as more and more eggs get laid. At least that's what we've read...) So, for now at least, it looks like we're stuck waiting for June.

It's making us reconsider the possibility of keeping one of the roosters we'll eventually get - it looks like having chicks to sell could be a nice little source of income.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Growing success

We may have been having trouble keeping our sprouts and bushes to ourselves and away from the mouths of deer and mice, but boy, can we grow skunk cabbage!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Varmints continued

Our problems with mice and deer continue. You may remember that I had a bit of trouble with mice eating the peas I had planted, and nibbling my seedlings in the greenhouse. You may also remember I dealt with the pea issue by covering the bed with a floating row cover. Ha.

I should thank all of you who might have laughed at me, and refrained, hearing this great plan. Why on earth would I think a floating row cover, even one securely anchored around its perimeter, would keep out a determined and hungry mouse? The very next day I lifted the cover the find the same neatly drilled holes in the soil where the peas had once been. Little buggers.

And there was worse news in the greenhouse. Sure, my chard seedlings had been nibbled to the ground, but chard is easy and quick to grow and I didn't feel so bad having to plant some more. But my pepper seedlings! My carefully pampered and prospering pepper seedlings - now that hurt. The mice didn't even fully enjoy them - they just chewed them off and left the decapitated bits on top of the soil.

Well, I got a bit heated under the collar. Things got even more heated a few days later when Kim went back to the garden and discovered that deer had nibbled the tender leaves of the freshly planted Asian pear tree and the ends of a few of her new blueberry bushes. We should have expected it, but our problems with deer have been sporadic. We had planned to put a wire cage around the tree, and netting over the blueberries - we just hadn't got to it.

I had to figure out how far I wanted to go in the mouse-deterrence battle. Those of you who refrained from laughing at my floating row cover idea may have to turn away for a moment, because my next strategies were to sprinkle cayenne pepper all over the seedlings in the greenhouse, and plug in an electronic rodent deterrer. You can guess how well those worked. So now, for the first time in my life, I am baiting mouse traps with peanut butter every evening, and first thing every morning I make the circuit of all the traps and dispose of the dead mice I find.

I cried with the first one. Only its nose had been caught in the trap, and I wondered how long it had lived, and how much it had suffered. I hated myself. I don't kill things - I grow things. What was I doing?

It got a bit easier after that, mostly because all the mice I have found since then ( and there haven't been that many) have had definitively crushed heads. I could see that their deaths would have been quick. But it still doesn't sit easily with me.

Dealing with the deer problem was easier. No life and death issues there, just some wire fencing around the pear tree and some nylon bird netting for the blueberries. We used netting last year to keep the birds from the strawberries and the deer from the blueberries, gooseberries and blackberries planted along the fence, but we weren't totally happy with the system we had worked out, mostly because the netting kept get tangled in the lawn mower, and it proved to be a pain to keep out of the way when harvesting all those berries we had protected so well.

So this year Kim got serious and came up with a great way of managing it. She screwed stakes to the outside of each raised bed, pulled netting taut over the stakes, and then used more screws at the bottom to hook the bottom edge of the netting, providing good coverage without having netting dragging on the ground waiting for the power mower. When we want to get into the bed we just unhook the bottom edge of the netting and drape it up over the top, easy as pie. Blueberry pie.

These little hooks from Lee Valley have proved very useful. We used the net-to-wire hooks to easily fasten the netting to the existing fence, and the net-to-net hooks to tie back the excess netting at the corners. And they're cheap!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Missing scents

I have no sense of smell. It's not a permanent thing, just something that has settled in for a long (very long) stay. It has to with the chronic sinusitis I developed about 10 years ago and which has been hard to puzzle out and fix. My best guess is that it's related to food allergies - I started to be able to smell again when I was on a diet that included no gluten, no dairy, no sugar and no caffeine. It was great to be able to breathe again, but man, that was a hard diet to stick to.

When I realized a couple of days ago that this spring marks the 10th anniversary of my loss of smell I started to reflect on what that means. On what I'm missing. Good smells: coffee brewing in the early morning, woodsmoke in the air on a frosty winter night, the smell of wet cedar in the greenhouse. Flowers, a damp dog, freshly chopped rosemary, laundry dried on the line. Bad smells: kitty litter boxes, compost piles that need turning, roofs being tarred. Exhaust from the chain saw.

I've come to the conclusion that even though it is sometimes convenient not to be able to smell (when visiting an outhouse, for example), I am missing out on a lot, especially now that we live out here in the country. When I step out onto the verandah in the morning my nose should be assaulted by all the scents of a damp, green spring. When I cultivate the soil in the vegetable garden I want the smell of the earth to accompany the feel of moist, crumbling soil in my hands. Crushed creeping thyme underfoot in the perennial garden, the grass in the clearing baking under the hot summer sun, hyacinths in the spring. And lilacs - how I miss the smell of lilacs!

So I've decided to mark this 10th anniversary by doing my darnedest to get back on that gluten, sugar, dairy and caffeine-free diet. If past experience is any indication it will take about 3 months before I notice any difference, but if I start today that means I should be able to enjoy the first armful of basil from the greenhouse in early July in a whole new way.

Stay tuned. I'll tell you just how wonderful it smells.

Monday, April 5, 2010

More weird weather

We have strange weather where we are. Vancouver Island as a whole is odd meteorologically speaking, and it was when we moved here nine years ago that I learned the word "microclimate." You are living in a microclimate when it snows a foot and a half and you call in to work to tell them your car got stuck on the first hill and they tell you there's no snow where they are. (Yes, this happened to me our first winter here, and didn't the Victoria residents get a good laugh at me, the Toronto import who was supposed to know how to drive in snow.)

Well, there are microclimates and then there is just plain weirdness. We knew something was extra odd when we moved to our new home a little over a year ago: we would shovel out from under the latest dump of snow and get to the top of the road only to discover that they had half the snow we did. I'm talking a few hundred metres away.

We got another example today. About lunchtime the sky got very dark and glowering, and we knew we were in for something. Then the skies opened up and it hailed. Man, did it hail. Not really big hail stones, but enough to knock the plants around a bit. It hailed like mad for about 10 minutes, during which time we got in the car to drive to town for some errands. We had trouble getting up the hill there was so much ice on the road, but at the top of that hill there was no hail. And a few hundred metres down the road the pavement was dry.

I am not making this up.

We're trying not to take it personally.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Big blow

All of you in other parts of Canada who usually have to suffer the glee of Vancouver Islanders about the cold and snow and bad weather you endure while we gloat about living in Lotus Land? Well, here's your payback. Yesterday while you were enjoying a gorgeous sunny, warm day, we were in the middle of a big wind storm.

We were woken early yesterday morning by the sounds of something big hitting the roof and rolling down the slope. Turns out it was just a smallish branch, but it made a real racket and gave us an indication of the day we were going to have. It blew and blew. It poured. The power went out twice. It even snowed for about 5 minutes early this morning before the storm finally gave up. It was a bit of a scary day, given that our house is surrounded by tall trees that were swaying madly in the gale. But everyone - people, pets, neighbours, cars, buildings - all survived fine. One quite large branch impaled the potato bed, javelin style, and another came down just beside the car, and there was tree debris everywhere this morning, but no one was hurt, nothing was damaged, and we didn't run out of toilets to pee in when we had no water because the power was out.

When we were lying in bed last night Kim commented that it was actually a good thing the chickens didn't arrive when they were supposed to, as we would have had a hard time keeping them warm enough with the power out for so long. So there you go.

I have no photos for you, as I was sensibly inside staying warm and dry, but try for some pictures of the Mill Bay Marina, a little way down the highway from us.

Thursday, April 1, 2010


There's something missing from this picture...chicks! Our 18 Red Rock Cross, Red Sussex Cross and Buff Orpington chicks were supposed to arrive today, but they didn't. The local distributor for the hatchery said they're swamped with orders - it seems lots of people are wanting a few chickens for their backyards. We have been assured they will arrive on April 14, so we'll just have to wait a little longer.

We borrowed this brooder box and the lamp from our always helpful neighbour Nick, and it fits very nicely in Bathroom #2, which you may remember has been gutted and re-drywalled. It seems there was a reason we put that renovation on hold - it was to allow its temporary incarnation as the chicken brooding room. Who knew.
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