Saturday, February 27, 2010

Garden tools



We have garden tools - lots and lots of garden tools. We have more garden tools than two women could possibly need, partly because we seem to have a natural talent for accumulating things and partly because the couple we bought the house from left many of their tools behind when they moved.

We have many tools for digging. Round shovels. Square shovels. Short handled spades. Long handled spades. Trowels. An edger. A mattock. A pitchfork. We have just as many tools for cutting things: hand pruners, a pole pruner, shears, loppers, saws, an axe. We have a lawnmower, a string trimmer and a chainsaw. Sometimes I am embarrassed by how many tools we have, but almost all of them seem essential, for one job or another.

I am starting to discover that people have interesting relationships with their tools. For example, many gardeners have strong opinions about which kind of hoe is the best kind of hoe. (This sounds like the start of a really bad joke, but it's not. Really.) One fellow whose garden I toured was vehement that a Dutch hoe (what most people picture in their minds when someone says "garden hoe") is the only kind of hoe worth using. I am just as vehement that my stirrup hoe (which looks like a stirrup on the end of a long handle, and is drawn towards you just under the soil, efficiently uprooting the weeds) is the best hoe ever made. Go figure. That doesn't even take into account diamond hoes, collinear hoes, or fancy Japanese hoes.

One of my favourite tools is the wheelbarrow. When we started this adventure I thought of a wheelbarrow as something you would only use to move a pile of dirt from one place to another. For some reason it didn't occur to me until relatively recently that you can use a wheelbarrow to carry pretty much anything you don't feel like lugging yourself. (I'm not normally such a slow learner. Really.) For example, when garbage day came around I used to lug the full, heavy garbage can out to the road for pickup. Then one day my eye fell on the wheelbarrow and I put the can in the barrow and wheeled it out to the road, easy as pie. Now I use a wheelbarrow to carry shop vacs and chop saws and trees and tomato plants and bales of straw and bags of groceries, as well as piles of dirt and mulch and compost and brush. Whenever I use a wheelbarrow to schlep something, it feels like a friend doing me an unexpected favour.

Another of my favourite tools is the rake you can see in the picture. We brought two rakes with us, useless plastic things that break and bend and were a waste of money. But the one in the picture was left behind for us, and it's the best rake ever. It looks like nothing, and has one broken tine, but it's sturdy and reliable and the only rake I'll use now. There's something really satisfying about a secondhand, not-quite-whole, pretty darn battered rake beating out the shiny new ones.

When you own tools you have to know how to use them and how to take care of them. I am terrible at taking care of the tools I use. At the bare minimum, you should at least clean your tools when you finish using them, but I am usually so tired when I finally stop that the muddy pruners get tossed in the bucket along with the muddy fishtail weeder (a long metal stick with a fork at the end for digging out the roots of weeds). No wonder I go through a couple of pairs of pruners every year. Fortunately they're the $8 ones, since Kim knows me better than to buy the $40 ones.

One of my 2010 resolutions is to take better care of my tools. I think that if I was the kind of person who took better care of my tools, I would be the kind of person who would take better care of myself, too. That's a good thing to strive for, for my tools and myself.

[For the sharp-eyed among you, yes that is a snow shovel in the picture, and no we don't have to use it very often. But if we got rid of it you could be sure it would snow 2 feet the next day.]

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Chickens



I love this picture of our chicken coop. It looks like someone has just cracked open a window in the back storage room at the chicken museum, once Grand Central Station but now dusty and still and used to house unused furniture. It looks like a room just waiting to get emptied out and cleaned, so it can welcome back the clucking, laying crowds.

We knew from Day 1 that we would get chickens, and we briefly contemplated getting them last spring, but we were still unpacking, still commuting over the Malahat, and still trying to keep the muck from reaching the top of our boots. So we reminded ourselves about wisdom being the greater part of valour and decided to wait until this year to venture into the business of keeping chickens.

Chickens for eggs were always in the plan. What needed sorting out was whether we would raise meat chickens, too. We eat chicken on average once a week, and the cost of organic chicken is pretty darn high. If we could slaughter our own chickens, raising them ourselves would be an economical way to ensure a supply of high quality meat for us to eat. But there are two problems with that: the slaughtering part, and the eating part.

This is where I start feeling like an imposter. Who do we think we are, pretending to be farmers and then having a fainting spell at the thought of (a) killing the chickens we plan to eat, and then (b) actually putting a mouthful of meat from a bird we raised from a chick in our mouths? But imposters or not, hypocrites or not, we have to find our own way to navigate this path, so here's what we've decided to do.

We have ordered 18 chickens: 10 Buff Orpingtons, 4 Red Rock Cross and 4 Red Sussex Cross. The Orpingtons are a heritage dual-purpose breed, which means they're pretty good egg layers and pretty good meat chickens. They come unsexed, so we won't know until they start to mature how many males and how many females we have. The Red Rock Cross and Red Sussex Cross are also dual-purpose birds, and since the chicks have different colours depending on their gender, it's possible to order just female chicks, which we have done. [This is not without ethical implications. The author of one of my favourite blogs, Throwback at Trapper Creek, writes about newborn male chicks being slaughered en masse at hatcheries because customers only want female birds for eggs or can't have roosters because of local by-laws. Can you read that and not think of girl babies in China?] The plan is that when the birds are big enough to eat, we'll take the male Orpingtons to the slaughterhouse in Cowichan Bay to have them killed and dressed. This isn't a financially sound plan for the long run, but it will give us a chance to see how we feel about eating our own birds. If we're okay with it then we'll look at learning how to slaughter them ourselves.

That means we'll be left with roughly a dozen hens that should start to lay in the late fall. Once they get into full swing, that will mean about 8 eggs a day, more or less, which means extra eggs to sell - 2 0r 3 dozen a week. We're not quite sure to whom, but Kim is confident we'll find a buyer.

The chicks won't arrive until the end of March, but it's hard not to get excited. There's a lot of work to do in the meantime. The coop has to be emptied and scrubbed out, the fencing around the chicken yard needs to be inspected and repaired, we have to lay in a supply of feed and bedding, we need to find some way to protect the birds from eagles overhead, and we have to think about the best way of introducing Frankie to the chicks (he's going to bark at them, even on the other side of a fence - oh, how he's going to bark!) The chicken museum is about to come to life.

[For those of you who knew me in my previous life as a Math teacher, isn't this a perfect example of a binomial probability distribution? Q: What's the probability that at least 5 of the Buff Orpingtons turn out to be female? A: 62%!]

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Pruning boot camp



Life at Mucky Boots this spring is different in lots of ways than last spring. We aren't commuting 60-75 minutes over the Malahat to get to work every morning, for one thing. Last spring most things were on a keeping-our-heads-above-water basis, and as a consequence lots of jobs just didn't get done.

Like pruning, for example. We have a small orchard with 3 apple, 3 crab apple, 2 pear, 1 Asian pear, 4 peach, 3 plum and 3 cherry trees. In addition, we have about two dozen blueberry bushes, a 20 foot row of raspberry canes, and a couple of blackberry plants. All of which require pruning.

Last year we did a bare-bones job of pruning the two biggest oldest apple trees, some when it was supposed to get done (i.e. late winter) and some later, when we could get to it. The trees seemed to have forgiven us for not knowing what we were doing, because we got bumper crops from both trees.

This year, we are determined to do it right. What do two former teachers do when they have to learn something new? Read books, of course. So we assembled all the books in our library that had something to tell us about pruning fruit trees and berry bushes, and set to work.

It quickly became clear that pruning is complicated enough to merit a graduate degree. Pruning can be done to create or maintain a basic shape, to promote or inhibit growth, or to increase fruit yield or quality. There is winter pruning. There is summer pruning. Does the tree need a central leader or do better with an open, vase shape? It wasn't long before we felt a little overwhelmed. Normally when a job needs doing one of us or the other takes it on, but this time we decided two heads were better than one, and we'd do it together.

We decided to tackle it a fruit at a time, starting with the apple trees. We started with damaged and diseased branches. Off they went. Then we looked for branches crossing other branches. Off they went. Every time we made a cut we dunked the loppers in bleach water, to make sure no bug or disease was passed from one branch to another. And every time we flung a pruned branch away, Frankie leapt for it and wrestled it to the ground for a good chewing. He had a great time - he thought the whole exercise was for his benefit.

Once the big pruning was done, we turned our attention to the new growth from last year. All the cuts we made had to be planned so that the resulting lateral growth would be in the right direction - i.e. outwards and up, not inwards or down. With this in mind, we trimmed all the laterals and leaders back to between 3 and 6 buds and we were done.

We read somewhere that since the ideal shape for an apple tree is open in the middle, if you can throw your hat through the centre of the tree, you're in business. When we were finished we tried it with Kim's favourite straw hat, which Frankie then pounced on and demolished. So much for that trick.

The raspberries were much easier. Raspberries bear fruit on canes in their second year of growth, which means any canes that are older, and have already borne fruit, can be cut out. The same holds true for blackberry canes. Blueberries are similar - they bear on two or three year old wood, so older wood needs to be cut out to encourage new shoots to come up from the base.

So we're getting there. There's still a lot to do, and the weather has turned cool and rainy again after a wonderful week of sun and warmth, so it's not quite as much fun to be working outside. But we're feeling a bit more confident that we have a handle on at least the basics of pruning. And if there's one thing this new life is teaching me, it's that I shouldn't wait to feel entirely comfortable before I try something new. Some times you just have to trust that you have the general idea, jump in, and know that you'll get older and wiser as you go.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Magnolia buds



These buds are to full-blown magnolia blossoms what toddlers in fuzzy slippers are to women in pink satin ball gowns: they're going to be spectacular, but right now they are just perfect.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Inheritance



One of the outbuildings at Mucky Boots is a tool shed, beside the road that leads to the farming half of the property. Its walls are unfinished, weathered plywood, and one corner of the floor has sunk enough that when we put the lawnmower away, it wheels itself to the back of the shed. One of the first projects we took on was to replace the roof, and when that was done Kim got busy with hooks and hangers inside, so that every tool has its place.

It's a humble, unpretentious structure, which I think is why it's my favourite of the outbuildings. And my favourite part of this favourite shed is the rusted metal latch that lowers into a hole in the floor to keep one of the two doors shut. For some reason I find it really charming, probably because it looks like it has had a long and useful life.

I like to think about the person who put it there in the first place, who I imagine was thinking about a good, solid latch for the good, solid shed that had just been built. Maybe it was new. Maybe it was reused from an earlier shed. But someone carefully screwed it into position, measured the depth of the latch, drilled the hole in the floor, and then latched the door shut for the first time. It feels like we have inherited more than a latch - we've inherited the fruit of someone else's planning and work, and the story of how that person ended up in this place at that time, with a properly closing shed door at the top of his or her list of things to do.

There's a lot of that around here: artifacts of other people's dreams and hard work. We know a little bit about the first owners of the house - while he built the house solidly and well, she laid the bones of the perennial gardens. They eventually divorced, and sold it to the couple we bought it from. The night before the transfer took place, the man who built the house wrote a long note to the new owners, explaining about the numerous light switches in the upstairs bedroom (including a switch for the porch lights so you don't have to go all the way downstairs to turn them off when you're already in your pyjamas and realize you left them on - how clever is that?), and about the wiring and plumbing that had been done for a dishwasher that was never installed, and passing on his sad, little-bit-drunk best wishes along with tips about managing a septic system. That note was passed to us when we took possession of the property four or five years later, in a folder with instruction manuals and warranties and other important papers.



The new owners had their own dreams for the place. She was an avid gardener who constructed the greenhouse, expanded the orchard and began growing vegetables organically. I see her hand especially in the vegetable garden, in the rusted garden gates she used as whimsical backdrops for herbs and berries, in the butterfly bushes she planted all along the fence to attract beneficial insects, and in the tulips, lavender bushes and poppies she tucked into every available pocket and corner. Maybe it was for practical reasons like attracting bees, but I like to think it was because she thought a vegetable garden should be food for the eye, the heart and the soul as much as for the body.

They, too, separated and had to sell the property, which is when it came to us. Two sad endings. I hope we don't repeat the pattern.

As Kim and I slowly make our own mark on the farm, I don't want to erase the evidence of those two couples' hopes and hard work. Instead, I hope we weave our own dreams into those we have inherited. And I'm never going to replace the latch on the tool shed door.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Building projects



Remember the great no-electric-heat challenge? Kim and I set out to heat our home this winter with only the wood stove on the lower level. We're almost there, and have stuck to our goal except for about a month when we were either installing the flooring underneath the stove or had to leave a heated house for our cats when we were out of town. Go team!

But when we're not patting ourselves on the back, we are gaining a real appreciation for how much wood can be burned by even a very efficient wood stove operating between 10 and 18 hours each day. We started the fall with a woodshed that was chock-a-block full, partly with some of the wood from the trees we had taken down last spring, that we split and stacked, and partly with wood we inherited when we bought the property. But by a few weeks ago we had burned our way to the back stacks, only to find that the wood was punky and practically useless for burning - if an armload of wood feels about as heavy as an armload of towels, you have a problem.

So we cleaned out the shed, loaded the bad wood into the truck, and hauled it all to the dump where it could be recycled with other wood products. We couldn't figure what else to do with it: we couldn't just dump it in the unused back part of our property, given the extreme fire hazard declared every summer. And recycling seemed better than just burning it in a big bonfire. Any ideas, anyone?

Once the woodshed was empty, Kim's instincts for creating systems that work took over, and it was time to remodel. The timber-frame style shed was very sound, but the open sides made it difficult to keep wood stacked, so out came the chop saw, the wire cutters and the drill. Now the shed has sturdy wire-fencing walls that make it easy to stack wood but still provide lots of ventilation to allow the wood to dry properly. The dirt floor got a new covering of scrap pieces of the siding from the workshop, and Kim created a new rack to hang tools from. Then it was time to start schlepping in all the wood we stacked in cribs all over the property last fall when we ran out of room in the woodshed.



Yesterday we had to call a temporary halt to the great wood migration while our neighbour borrowed the truck, so we turned our attention to the vegetable garden. When we got the property last year there were 14 raised beds, most of them measuring 4 by 12, and all of them constructed with untreated spruce. Raised beds are great for lots of reasons, including the speedier warming of the soil in the spring and the greater ease of tending what's growing in them because you don't have to bend down so far. But they create maintenance issues, because all that wood in contact with all that wet soil means wood rot. Some people use pressure-treated wood because it lasts longer, but that means chemicals leaching into the soil and eventually making their way into your vegetables. Untreated spruce was probably an inexpensive option, but spruce isn't really known for its longevity. So we invested in a whole bunch of cedar last spring - nice thick, beefy boards that should last a good long while. Last year, when time was at a premium, we only managed to build one new bed and reconstruct the most rotted of the existing beds, so this year our aim is to rebuild four more. One down, three to go.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Signs of spring



We have been getting quite matter-of-fact about the carpet of snowdrops and winter aconite covering all the perennial beds. When I look out at the garden from the covered verandah I see a beautiful mosaic of yellow and white and green.

Today I noticed a slightly different shade of yellow - less lemony, more like mango. Sure enough, there was the first patch of crocus. What is it about spring flowers that makes them so good at lifting the heart? Is it just that they come at the time of year we most need a little lift, or is it their pluckiness as they ignore temperatures that still come close to freezing at night and bloom anyway?

The hellebores have been blooming, too, but it's been hard to get a picture since they like to grow in shade and it has been so gloomy and rainy lately. But the sun came out for a while this morning, and so here is one of the flashier Mucky Boots hellebores.


There is so much coming to life in the garden that some days it feels like I'm standing on a subterranean lava flow of spring energy. The honeyberries are leafing out, and there are the prettiest pink buds on the blueberry bushes. The bare branches of the red-twigged dogwoods are almost luminescently red, and the twigs of other shrubs are glowing yellow. And by the pond is a sad, spindly, punky little tree, a volunteer that nobody planted, nobody loves, nobody even notices. But right now it is claiming its own moment of beauty as it leafs out in tender green leaves. It's as if everything living thing, loved or not, feels the promise of spring.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Farm animals



No, these are not our goats. They belong to a neighbour on our regular walking route. Whenever they hear us coming (which is easy, since their dogs start barking, and then Frankie starts barking, and if you're within a 2 km radius you can hear us coming) they poke their heads out the door to have a look at what's causing all the excitement.

We thought about having goats ourselves, primarily for their milk. We had visions of yogurt and goat cheese. Imagine having your own source of local, organic, freshly made goat's cheese to enjoy whenever you like. But then we started reading about goats, and we learned they're quite a bit of work.

First of all, you need two, because they need company. You probably want female goats, if it's the milk you're interested in. Besides, male goats can be smelly and hard to handle. Since goats need to be bred every year to produce milk, you need to arrange for a visit from an amorous male goat, and you need to be prepared for kids. Goats usually produce one or two kids, which means you could end up with four of them. And, according to one source we read, if you want the mothers' milk for yourself, you should never let the kids suckle.

Hmm... You now have between two and four kids that need bottle feeding a few times each day from the time they're born until they are weaned a few months later. Plus, you're milking the mothers twice a day for that milk you're so interested in. Then you have to either find homes for the kids, or, especially in the case of female kids, keep them yourself, which means more potential offspring in the future. Have you ever heard of exponential growth?

On top of that, we had to consider where to keep them (we'd have to build a new shed, big enough for two) and what to feed them (we have only a bit of grazing land, which means buying feed, which changes the whole cost-benefit-analysis). It was at this point we decided maybe goats weren't for us - at least for now.

But a pig...now that's an idea.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Rainy day



Another rainy day. With so much experience, I'm starting to be familiar with the different degrees of rain. There's the drizzle that's so light and fine you can persuade yourself it doesn't really count. Then there's the official sort of rain that requires a ball cap to keep your head dry. And there's the kind of rain we had today: rain that calls for boots to tuck your pants into so the hems don't turn into a muddy mess, and a hood to keep the water from running down the back of your neck.

All this rain is making me impatient. There's lots to do outside, but much of it has to be deferred because it's bad for the soil to work it when it's so wet. And other jobs change from pleasantly dirty to a miserable I'm-carrying-around-so-much-mud-on-my-clothes-I-can't-walk kind of dirty. There are still lots of renovations to do inside the house, but with spring so close we can taste it, neither of us feels like embarking on another big indoor project.

So I puttered in the green house today. I spritzed the leek and onion seedlings. I installed my new max/min thermometer. I made another batch of soil block mix and started more seedlings. I amused myself by slicing up empty yogurt containers into markers to label my trays with. I fussed with the arrangement of the heating mats, and stacked empty trays three ways. I may not have been very productive, but I was content to putter away in the warm, humid air, listening to the sound of the rain hitting the plastic of the green house and being reminded that when we camped when I was growing up, rainy days in the canvas tent playing games and reading books were my favourite sort of days.



Kim came to join me a little while later, and decided that since the shelves she had put up for me were already full with seedlings, she needed to build some more. Here she is in the workshop, building brackets. She could have gone out and bought some metal ones, but we're getting pretty good at making do with what we have, when we can.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Eating the harvest



Harvest? In February? Actually, most of the harvest took place months ago, but I seem to be having trouble eating it.

I recognized I had a problem in June, when the fennel was ready to eat. There were 24 beautiful bulbs, just waiting to be julienned into salads, or steamed under fish in parchment, or braised in broth in a saute pan. But did I eat them? No - I just admired them, regularly. Every day I would stand by the raised bed and admire the fern-like fronds, and imagine how good they would taste when I finally decided to eat them. That went on so long that by the time I brought myself to pull one out of the soil it was past its prime. So there I was, having saved my fennel only to end up with two dozen woody bulbs.

I had the same problem with my canned harvest. I made great pickled beets, but I only opened the first jar recently. And I worked hard to can as many tomatoes as the greenhouse could produce. They're all still there except the one I finally used last week. And when the vast quantities of strawberries kept rolling in I chastised Kim for eating them fresh, insisting we needed to save them in the freezer. And they're still there, for the most part - in the freezer.

What gives? you may be asking. I'm asking myself the same question, and I think there are a few reasons I'm hesitating to enjoy the food we grew.

Reason #1 is that I am saving the harvest for a special occasion. I'm not entirely sure what that occasion might be. Maybe the thought of fresh-from-the-garden produce is so wonderful I figure it shouldn't be for everyday. Which pretty much defeats the purpose of giving up our jobs and moving to a farm. I think I need to get over this.

Reason #2 is pride. Those 24 bulbs of fennel looked gorgeous, and I felt a real sense of achievement that I, the city girl who had never had a vegetable garden before, grew them. Surely they deserved to be admired a while more before being eaten.

Reason #3 is a bit weirder. The third reason I feel a need to save the harvest instead of eating it is a fear of - um - armageddon.

You may have noticed that, what with concerns over meteorites hitting the house and middle-of-the-night flood evacuations, I have a bit of a problem with disaster scenarios. But really, it's not that big a deal, and beyond making sure we have a reasonable earthquake kit (which all Vancouver Islanders should have) I don't think fear of disaster affects my day-to-day life.

But when we moved here to try to grow our own food, we also moved into the sphere of people around the world striving for self-sufficiency. And some of those are people preparing for one kind of armageddon or another: peak oil, climate crises, a day of judgement. When I'm googling "homesteading" or "self-sufficiency" I try to bypass sites with numerous biblical quotes, or instructions about handling small arms. But I think somehow I have been infected, a little, by the fears behind them.

I can see how this might happen. There's a lot of overlap between self-sufficiency and survivalism. What do people who want cheaper organic vegetables and people who fear the collapse of the rule of law have in common? They grow their own food. What links frugal folks trying to be thrifty with certain religious groups preparing for crises? Food stockpiles - you know, buying things in quantity when they go on sale, or preserving as much of the harvest as you can. And whether you're trying to reduce your carbon footprint or you're afraid of having no electricity because society as we know it has collapsed, you might choose to have solar power. Different motivations with the same outcome.

So, I think part of my reluctance to break into the freezer or the pantry for the harvest I preserved last summer and fall might be a semi-subconscious sense that I should be saving the food for harder times.

This year I am determined that this not affect my decisions about eating the harvest - at least not unconsciously. I am determined that every bulb of fennel I plant get eaten and enjoyed, preferably at its prime. We will eat warm, juicy raspberries for breakfast, and if last year's harvest was any indication, there will still be lots leftover for the the freezer. When the greenhouse is full to bursting with tomatoes we'll slice some into salads, dry some for the pantry and make the rest into tomato sauce which we'll enjoy during the months until the next harvest.

The next harvest: what lovely words.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Working hard



Kim and I spent about 4 hours working in the garden today, in a grey, drizzling rain, getting thoroughly chilled but accomplishing enough to make it seem worthwhile. Our focus was the two raised beds in the greenhouse, where we grew tomatoes and basil last year. They are the only greenhouse beds we have, and we fill them to the brim, but that causes a problem every year because we can't rotate the tomatoes anywhere else - and not rotating tomatoes to other beds is just asking for trouble. What do you do if you can't move the tomatoes? Move the soil instead!

So today we shovelled 2/3 of the soil from the beds, carting the dirt to the front of the house where it will help convert some barren wasteland to productive perennial beds. Then we shovelled in new soil from the load we had delivered last summer, and topped it all with lovely black, rich compost. This year's tomatoes will think they're in heaven.

It was hard work. Heavy shovel loads seem twice as heavy when you're in cramped quarters, trying to twist from bed to barrow and back again. And I'm quite stubborn when it comes to pushing on to get a job done, even when sore joints and muscles tell me that's not the best idea. So it's done, which is great, but I have a feeling I'll be hobbling around for a day or two... We're going to have to think about a longer-term solution, because I really don't want to have to do this every year.

I tried to take before-and-after pictures, but the battery in the camera needed recharging. Instead, a picture of a woman and her tractor, having fun in the dirt.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Rhubarb


Rhubarb is popping out of the ground all over. There are about two dozen clumps in the blueberry bed, some mixed in with the hostas near the house, and still more in the other perennial beds. There is no shortage of rhubarb here at Mucky Boots.

It can be disconcerting to see it when it first edges a shoulder out of the soil, because red is not what anyone is used to seeing this time of year. But once the momentary startle is over, it is very nice to greet the first fruit-like food of the year.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Dirt



I had a lovely morning yesterday - I spent a few hours in the garden, in a light drizzle, cleaning up the forest-like beds at the front of the house. There are a number of big gorgeous rhododendrons and Japanese maples, some azaleas, some evergreens, and a few odds and sods like holly bushes and a sumac tree. All enveloped by lush ferns, vinca vines and assorted nameless shrubby things, in raised stone beds with paths wandering through. It's quite a lovely part of our property, but with everything else going on last year it got completely neglected.

It's looking much better now, after three days of work. The stone paths have been reclaimed from a couple of winters of falling evergreen needles and one long summer of weed proliferation. Last year's dead lily-like objects have been cleaned out. The dead fern fronds have been cut back. And all of a sudden there is more to see. Instead of an indistinct mass of green stuff, now there are individual shrubs looking magnificent even in their early spring nakedness. With the dead undergrowth cleared away we can see the green shoots of the many bulbs that have been planted in the beds. And the tidied paths look so inviting as they wind away through the beds. Everything seems to have more room to be.

It all involved a lot of dirt and mess. Dried, messy stuff I cleaned out and carted away. Dirty, soggy stuff I raked and swept off the paths. Rich, dark compost I carted in and spread. I really like getting dirty when I work. In fact, the dirtier the better. Maybe it's just a reaction against the years of my life when I had to dress up and stay clean. Or maybe being dirty is a visible marker of productivity - or at least effort. Whatever it is, I like it when Kim comes outside and exclaims over how dirty I am and wonders how I got dirt in my ear and on my chin and how I am ever going to get those pants clean.

On a popular CBC radio phone-in show recently, a gardening expert gently chided a caller for saying "dirt" when he meant "soil." I like "dirt," myself.


Monday, February 1, 2010

Old friend



We have seen the return of an old friend this week. These lovely yellow flowers are very low to the ground - only a couple of inches high - and lost out only to the snowdrops in the "early to bloom" category. Last year we called them the lion flowers, because their bright heads surrounded by a ruff of green leaves reminded us of lions, for some reason. They felt like friends, even though we'd just met - they were just so darn cheerful, at a time when we felt scarred by our traumatic move and the hard, long, snowy winter.

Well, they're back, and we're glad! Though we started to feel like bad friends, being so happy at their return but not having a clue what they were. So I went looking today through every plant book we own, trying to make an identification. I even had to hunt through boxes of books still unpacked after the move, but it was worth it. We now have a name: eranthis, commonly known as winter aconite. Welcome back, little friends!
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