Monday, February 28, 2011

I hate snow



Warning: this post is one long, annoying, self-pitying rant.

To begin with, I need to establish my snow credibility. I grew up on the prairies. I began driving in Calgary, and learned so well how to pump the brakes on ice that I have had to avoid cars with ABS ever since. I spent more years driving in Ontario, in more blizzards, and on more ice.

But here's the thing. Ten years ago I moved to southern Vancouver Island. And now - now, I hate the snow. I really, really hate the snow.

I should be more specific. If I didn't have to worry about going anywhere, I would be fine with the snow. It's pretty. It makes everything so much brighter than our usual winter-cloudy-grey. Frankie likes to play in it. It can be an adventure.

But there are three things that make driving in that lovely snow a huge pain:

(1) Our snow really is different than the prairie snow I grew up with. Really. It's very wet, and the temperature is always around freezing, so the weight of a car turns it instantly to ice. I learned that the hard way my first snow storm here - same car, same tires and same driver as had just gone through an Ontario winter, but there I was, sliding and turning down a hill in a slow motion auto ballet.

(2) We live in the country and don't have a 4-wheel drive. Country roads aren't plowed as often and don't get as much traffic, so they're usually in a lot worse shape than city roads. And we don't have a 4-wheel drive. I'm starting to think a 4-wheel drive should come with every rural property. After the big snows we had in January we borrowed my dad's 4-wheel drive, and it didn't snow again. Until we returned it a week ago. It has snowed almost every day since.

(3) We live at the bottom of a big hill. Lovely for coming down, but impossible to get up until it has been plowed or the snow melts. It's actually worse than that: from the end of our driveway we have to go up a not-so-steep hill, then make a right-angled turn and go up a long, steep hill. There's no flat bit to get up enough momentum to make it to the top. The best we can do is open our gate, gun it down the driveway and up the first hill, carefully gauge how much to slow down for the corner (skidding out and oncoming traffic being the two chief dangers) without losing so much hard-won momentum that we don't make it to the top of the hill.

Have I mentioned that I hate snow?

For example, here was my day. We woke up to about 3 inches that had made no appearance in our local weather forecasts, so I didn't have a chance to prepare by parking the car at the top of the hill rather than the bottom. And sure enough I had an appointment I had to get out for. So I dragged Kim out of bed (it takes two to drive the car up the hill: one to drive and one to watch for oncoming traffic) and we tried, but couldn't get the car even halfway up the hill before it came to a halt and started sliding back down. But the sun was out, so two hours later I tried it again and made it. I thought that would be my snow experience for the day, but this afternoon during a tutoring session I looked out the window and saw nothing but a wall of blowing white. 5 minutes later it was clear. 20 minutes later I passed through another blizzard on the way to my next session. 20 minutes after that it was raining. By the time I left it was snowing again, but by the time I got back into town it was raining. Then snowing. Then the sky was clear. Then I drove to choir rehearsal and 7 minutes down the highway I was driving through a blizzard so dense I couldn't see the road, so I turned around and came back home. At home the sky was clear and I could see the stars.

I hate the snow.

I really, really need the spring.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Incubator update


You may remember that we started 31 eggs in our new incubator almost two weeks ago. From the very beginning the big question has been: how many are fertile?

The process that's used to figure this out is called candling. It involves holding the egg to a bright light in a dark room, to get a view of the contents. There are lots of websites with photos showing eggs at different stages of development, but there's a big difference between reading a book or looking at some pictures and figuring it out yourself with a flashlight in one hand and an egg in the other.

Kim and I gave it a try the other day. I was in charge of the record keeping, light switch switching and second opinion proffering, while Kim did the candling. What we were looking for was the air sac at the bigger end of the egg. In the photo you can see it on the left. That sac will get bigger as the embryo continues to develop. We were also looking for veining (visible at the top in the photo) and a dark mass that could be the embryo.

The air sac turned out to be a really easy thing to spot. Quite a few of the eggs had visible veining, and in some of those the embryo was very distinct. It was thrilling, actually. We were especially happy to find that most of the Australorp eggs were fertile - there was a time, after all, when we thought that Hector might be a gay, mute rooster. But he's doing his job - good Hector!

By the time we were finished we had decided that six of the eggs weren't fertile, so we took them out of the incubator and disposed of them - gently, since they were likely to be smelly if broken. So we're down to 25 eggs. There are still things that can go wrong before the hatch date of March 4 or 5, but we're excited to have made it this far.

Image from here.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Chickens on the run



Notice anything unusual about this picture? Extra points to you if you spotted that the chickens are outside the chicken yard.

Yes, Kim gave them their freedom yesterday. Maybe it was the sunshine, or the happiness that came from a morning of sifting compost, but for whatever reason Kim opened the gates to the chicken yard and let the birds roam free.

And oh, were they ever happy! The orchard is a great place for them to graze, but it's familiar territory. When the gates opened they ventured forth onto untouched ground, digging and scratching for all the bugs just waiting for them.


We kept Pee Wee in the chicken yard, but Hector was allowed to roam free with the girls. He took his guard-rooster duties seriously, even butting chests with Frankie when he got too close to the hens.


After an hour or so Kim decided it was time to round them all up and get them back in the orchard. All it took was a bit of scratch and a few calls of "chickie, chickie" and they all came trotting back. Even the scatterbrained crazy hen who is always the last one in.

video

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Butchart gardens



My mom and dad came for a visit this past weekend, as a way of helping me feel better about missing out on the family Christmas. It was lovely to see them, and fun to pretend it was Christmas even if we couldn't find a restaurant anywhere serving a roast turkey dinner.

On Sunday we went to the Butchart Gardens, a world famous 100-year-old garden built on the site of a old limestone quarry. When the family is here it's a tradition to tour their 12 Days of Christmas light display, so of course we had to go. There's not much in bloom in mid-February even here in Lotus Land, but it meant the bones of the garden were the stars of the show.



It's easy to imagine the old quarry in this photograph. This deep pool is the site of the "5 golden rings" verse of the Christmas light display: each fountain is circled by a ring of golden lights that shine in the dark.



Each generation of the family that owns the gardens has included beloved dogs, so leashed dogs are welcome to visit. Lucky Frankie.


For me the highlight were the garbage cans. I know that sounds a little odd, but they were quite beautiful. Each was housed in a cedar box with a lovely planter on top. I went around taking pictures of them all, watched by some perplexed Japanese tourists.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Tincture



As my near and dear ones know all too well, I suffer from...well, snot issues. I am the world's leading producer, and single-handedly keep the Kleenex company in business. If I could find a way to invent a super glue from snot, or a way of using snot to power internal combustion engines, I would have enough money to end world hunger.

Chronic sinusitis and rhinitis are pretty minor as health issues go, but still, they're a bit of a pain. My sinuses are so clogged I sound like a labouring steam engine when I sleep, and sometimes my poor nose gets weary of all the blowing.

I have spent years trying to find a cause, and a solution. If I can stick to a diet free from gluten, dairy, sugar, eggs, some nuts, caffeine and alcohol, it makes a difference. But man, is that hard.

Some of you may remember my herbal experiments from last year: I used comfrey, calendula and lavender harvested here at Mucky Boots to make a salve for insect bites, scrapes and burns. That got me interested in the idea of growing and using more medicinal herbs. I'm going to try out some new herbs in this year's garden, and in the meantime I have been reading lots of books about growing and using medicinal herbs. And didn't my eyes light up when I read that elderflowers and elderberries are good for reducing mucous production. Just what I need.

So about six weeks ago I put about 4 ounces of dried, organic elderflowers in a big mason jar and covered it with 100-proof vodka. I have faithfully stirred and shaken it every day since then, and finally, a few days ago, I decided the tincture was ready. I strained it twice, once through a fine colander and once through cheesecloth, then bottled it in a dark-coloured bottle to protect it from the light. A dose is supposed to be an ounce, but I see that as a bit of a problem: taking a few doses a day of 100-proof vodka could amount to a drinking problem. Especially since I'm not supposed to be drinking booze at all, never mind booze made from grain. So I'll stick with one or two eye-droppers as a dose instead, and see how that goes. While I see how that works, I'll investigate how to make a tincture without alcohol.

I've got another herbal experiment on the go: an elderberry "elixir" made with dried elderberries, brandy and honey. This one is beautiful - deep purple and a bit syrupy. It's not ready yet, but once it is I might be tempted to forget about its medicinal benefits and just serve it over ice cream. Soy ice cream, that is.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The next generation



Big news: the next chicks are on their way! We now have a toasty warm incubator loaded with eggs, scheduled to hatch around March 4 or 5.

First off, some of you may be wondering why we don't just let the hens do all this for us, and save ourselves the expense of an incubator. Well, there are an awful lot of things that can go wrong in the time between laying and hatching, which is why hens lay so many eggs. Most people at all serious about hatching eggs end up getting an incubator, to properly control the conditions that affect successful hatching.

We learned very early on that there are incubators, and then there are incubators. There are really cheap do-it-yourself models and there are ones that cost $1000 and look like sleek, stainless steel wine coolers from the future. At first Kim thought she would build her own with found materials, but the technical requirements for maintaining precise temperature and humidity, plus the need to regularly turn the eggs so they develop properly, were off-putting for even someone as game for a challenge as Kim.

The incubator we ended up buying was a middle-of-the-road one: it has a heating element connected to a very primitive thermostat (no actual scale, just a lever you turn one way if you want it cooler and the other way for hotter), channels for water to maintain the humidity, an electronic thermometer and hygrometer, and a mechanism that automatically tilts the eggs one way and then the other, very slowly. What it didn't have was a fan, to ensure even temperature and humidity throughout the unit. So Kim visited a local computer store, where a nice young fellow whose mother also incubates eggs gave her an old hard drive fan for free, which she wired into the incubator. What a nice fellow. In all, the entire system cost about $155. Given that we paid $5 each for our day-old Buff Orpington chicks last year, and $25 each for the point-of-lay pullets we bought from Ev, we think this is a bargain.


Next Kim spent two or three days checking to see the whole system worked, and adjusting the thermostat and humidity until the fairly narrow specs for hatching eggs were met. Then on Saturday the eggs - 10 Australorp and 21 Buff Orpington - were loaded into the incubator and the 21-day countdown began.


You may notice that one of the eggs in the photo doesn't look like the others. It looks like a cyborg-egg. It's actually Kim's homemade egg-o-meter. No, I'm not making that up. Apparently the temperature inside an egg is not the same as the temperature outside the egg. So people buy fake eggs, filled with gel and connected to a thermometer, to put in their incubators. But they cost about $20, and Kim had read about a better idea on the internet. We blew the insides out of an egg, to get an empty shell, filled it with hair gel, and inserted the probe of a $7 thermometer we got at Walmart. We did have to buy the hair gel, since neither of us use it, but it only cost $1.99. What a deal, and it works great.

Being the ex-science teacher that she is, Kim is taking her record-keeping very seriously. That's half the fun.


She will candle the eggs in about 5 days (holding a bright flashlight underneath each egg in a dark room) which will allow her see enough of the inside of the egg to know if it contains a growing embryo. At that point, of the fertile eggs, we can expect about an 85% hatch rate. So, if all goes well, in three weeks we should have a brooder full of baby chicks!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Uniform



When I was in university I had a professor who was a legend - you know, one of those teachers who spawn stories that get handed down from one year's class to the next. This fellow was famous for having reduced the problem of dressing every day to a simple art: five white shirts and five different coloured ties, one for each day of the week. He probably had a few pairs of pants, too, but they must have been identical because we couldn't tell.

Well, I'm feeling really sorry for all those times I sat in a lecture hall and shared a "Red tie, it must be Tuesday" joke with my classmates. Not just because it was kind of mean. But because my own students, the kids I tutor, could be telling the same joke about me.

I used to make decisions every day about what I would wear. But somehow, at some moment after we left the city, the words "simplify my life" got applied to my wardrobe. I now have a uniform. A Mucky Boots uniform.

Blue jeans. T-shirt. Half-zip fleece. Puffy vest. Warm socks. That's it.

By my count I have four fleeces, identical except for the colour (grey, purple, navy and teal), and three puffy vests (navy, purple and fancy purple check). Not counting any variations in t-shirts, since they're invisible under all my layers, that makes twelve different combinations of fleece and puffy vest. Do my students say to themselves "Today is Thursday, it must be purple fleece and navy vest day"? Has my fashion sense been reduced to little more than a joke?

Here's the thing: I don't really care. There's a reason I have settled on this as my uniform for the cooler months - it's comfortable, functional, and it gives me layering options for different temperatures. Plus I like grey and blue and purple. I don't spend any time ironing, or fretting about what to wear. I can go to the hardware store, out for lunch, or to a tutoring session without feeling over- or under-dressed.

So I'd like to apologize to that professor from so long ago. He was on to something that in my silly, self-absorbed youth I missed. And I'd like to pass on these words to my own students: laugh at me now, if you like. I can take it. I'll just smile and wait for the day when you, too, will come to appreciate the beautiful simplicity of a self-chosen uniform.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Hector's bad day



Hector had a bad day on Sunday. We went out for a few hours in the afternoon, and returned to find Hector bloody and torn - specifically, his comb. After some expert CSI work by Kim the next day, we think the injury happened when he got his comb caught in the wire during a through-the-fence duel with Peewee.

Whatever the cause, we came home to Hector cowering on the roof of the nest-box shelter, shaking the dripping blood out of his eyes.

Poor Hector.

We scooped him up and brought him into the house for patching up and TLC. We cleaned up the mess, found the tear, cleaned it some more, and dabbed it liberally with antibiotic ointment, and through it all Hector stayed calm and patient and didn't try to peck us once.

Good Hector.

He spent the night in a cage in the infirmary (otherwise known as the yet-to be-finished powder room), which meant we woke in the morning to the distinctive sound of his Baroquely ornamented bass crow coming from downstairs. What a lovely alarm clock.

One night in the infirmary was all it took. To welcome him back to the chicken yard, Kim treated everyone to a round of fresh spinach in the new hanging feeders she fashioned from thrift store grilling baskets.

Happy Hector.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Snowdrop-mageddon


My beloved Toronto-dwelling sister is a little irritated with me. It has to do with a reference to spring in one of my recent blog posts, at a time when most people in Canada were (still are) dealing with blizzards and white-outs and frozen cars that won't start. Well, darling sister, you might not want to read any further, because we're having a snow-mageddon here, too. Or, rather, a snowdrop-mageddon.

Yes, the snowdrops are magically lifting themselves out of the ground - here, there, and everywhere. In the perennial beds where they're supposed to be. In the lawn. In the vegetable garden. We're very glad to see them, because even though our winter wasn't that bad, relatively speaking, it felt bad. And besides, they're beautiful little things, even though you have to bend down really far to see just how pretty they are.


Other early-comers are appearing, too. Like our old friend the winter aconite...


...and in one of the perennial beds, right by an emerging forest of snowdrops, the first sign of rhubarb.


Spring! Almost...

Friday, February 4, 2011

Diatomaceous earth


You all know Kim works hard to keep her chickens safe, healthy and well cared for. She has a small library of chicken books on the shelf and the phone numbers of a handful of experienced chicken-raisers in her phone book for consultations. She is always reading, reading, reading.

One of the things she has learned is that late winter and early spring are a time when lice can be a problem for chickens. Not evil blood-sucking lice, but the relatively innocuous kind that nestle in among a chicken's tail feathers and snack on dead skin cells. They don't cause a chicken real distress, but still...yuck.

Chickens naturally combat insects by having dust baths, but if you want to help them with this, an organic way to prevent and treat lice is to use diatomaceous earth, which is often also used to control slugs and other pests in the garden. For those of you who are not gardeners, it's the powdered form of a sedimentary rock made up of the skeletons of lots and lots of little diatoms. It works against insects by drying out their exoskeletons. So I've heard.

So this week Kim made a trip to the feed store to get a few bags of the stuff, we did some poofing of the powdery stuff into the tail and underwing regions of each chicken, and we sprinkled more along the roosts and in the bedding in the coop. And as a piece de resistance, Kim added some to the chickens' favourite place to take a dust bath: a spot in Chicken Alley, against the wall of the coop.

So there they were this afternoon: soaking up the sun, fluffing up their feathers, flapping dusty pine shavings all around, and giving themselves a spa treatment all at the same time.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Construction



Another sign that spring is on the way is the evidence of raised bed construction in the vegetable garden. As well as adding new beds (like last year's blueberry beds) we have been slowly reconstructing the existing beds, built from inexpensive but short-lived spruce, with big, beefy, durable cedar. We got another one done this week, and doesn't it look nice?


We're getting pretty good at this: we made sure to do it when the ground was soft and soggy to make driving in the posts much easier, and our corners are the tidiest yet. Even the chickens passing by in Chicken Alley were impressed enough to slow down for a closer look.

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