Wednesday, October 16, 2013


Dear Friends-

I've been away and now I'm back, but only to say farewell. I've been away getting some help with my rheumatoid arthritis and have come home with a renewed trust in my own intuitions, which have been telling me for some time that I need to regroup, and refocus my reflective and creative energies inward for a while. And so, after five years, one week and one day, I am going to say goodbye.

I have loved writing this blog. For quite a while I did it just to tell my family about our adventures as we moved to Mucky Boots and figured out how to grow vegetables and raise chickens. And tried to overcome perfectionism, and learned how to accept the miraculous gifts of Mother Nature. And then you began to find your way here and this blog became, for me, a small community of kind-hearted, adventurous, wise and inquisitive friends. You have given me a reason to look more carefully for the small and precious moments, and to think more deeply about my days here and what they mean to me, and for that I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Goodbye, my friends, and remember: don't let the muck get higher than your boots!


Thursday, September 12, 2013


September is my favourite month. For me September is all about warm fleece on cool mornings, sunny afternoons that are a gift instead of a given, and the collective deep breath that comes as things slow down in the perennial garden. The demands of spring and summer have been met (or not) and the massive job of the fall clean up is still a month or two away. This is a time for sitting on the porch swing, enjoying some quiet and appreciating the beauty of the garden that is.

Much of the garden is showing its age, crispy and dry after the heat of the summer, or showing the effects of damage by pests. But there's still some colour to be found. The asters are just beginning to flower...

... and at the other end of their life cycle, the very last of the hosta flowers are hanging on for a few more days.

The wild and crazy dianthus is making a second showing...

... while the butterly weed I planted from seed this year is making its first bright orange showing.

The red valerian wins the longevity prize - it has been flowering non-stop since May, and shows no sign of calling it quits.

The fuschia, which for much of the year is so straggly I am always tempted to take it out, is looking like something from a Japanese block print. A graceful, gentle rebuke. 

I'll be taking a pause for the next month or so. Until I get back I wish you warm days, cool nights, and someone you love to share them with.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Growing up

Remember these fuzzy babies, the Buff and Welsummer chicks we hatched about 11 weeks ago? They don't look like that anymore. Say hello to our teenagers.

The Welsummers are a new breed for us, and it has been so interesting to see the differences between their growth and behaviour and that of the Buffs and Australorps. They're quite a bit smaller, for one thing, and are maturing much faster. The cockerels, who started crowing at about 9 weeks, are showing some spectacular colours...

...and even the pullets' more subtle colouring is just beautiful.

There's nothing like a new breed to show you all the ways in which you have been taking your old breeds for granted. Buffs and Australorps, being as big as they are, are not flyers. Sure, they'll flap their wings to soften a landing as they jump down from the roost, or to give some acceleration as they run, but they never fly. The Welsummers, on the other hand, have taught us all about verticality. Boop-booping is a whole different business with them: it's not enough to usher them along with a boop-boop stick, you have to factor in the likelihood that they will fly right over the stick, you, and anything else in the way.

Postscript: The Welsummers have matured into a much more dignified adulthood! They have lots of personality, curiosity and energy, are great talkers, have been consistently good layers, and the verticality issue is not a problem any longer. And they can boop boop like the best of 'em!

The baby Buffs, on the other hand, now that the feather picking issue has resolved itself, are a more predictable bunch. Kim has been away the last few days so I've been on Chicken Management duty, and I've appreciated their willingness to come, predictably, thankfully, back into their enclosures at the end of the day. No chasing them around the bushes, no fishing them off the rafters of the coop, no wings beating in my face.

Thank you, baby Buffs. What good chickie-chickies.

Thursday, September 5, 2013



This has been a bit of an odd summer here at Mucky Boots, at least for me. A taking stock kind of summer. I've been taking a close look, in as gentle a way as I can, at what I can realistically commit to on the garden front, given that my arthritis seems to be a more constant presence in my life. It's not only a question of  what I think I can do, but what I want to do. What am I good at growing? How much can we reasonably expect to eat? How can I cut back or adapt what I do to make it a joy instead of a constant game of catch-up?

Part of what's needed is a change in expectations, and I am happy to announce that I think, finally, I have graduated from the Remedial School for Perfectionist Gardeners. My garden hasn't been perfect for most of the year (so what else is new...) and I've been fine with that. Really.

After four growing seasons here, Kim and I are also taking a hard look at what's working and what's not, what we're good at and what we probably need to give up on. And first on that list, for both of us, is fruit.

We're pretty good at berries: strawberries, raspberries and especially blueberries. But we suck at growing tree fruit. We had big plans for our orchard, and added a number of trees when we first got here, but we have learned that growing fruit organically is tough: there's a disease and a pest for every season and every kind of fruit tree, and I think we've encountered them all. Throw in the demise of the grand dame of the orchard, our Pink Lady apple tree, and we're ready to throw in the towel. So we decided this summer that we would take out a few of the trees that are either dead or on their last legs and transition into more blueberries.

And then Mother Nature gave us this gift: plums.

We planted the Italian plum tree in the vegetable garden a couple of years ago. Last year it had one blossom. This year it had more, many of which transformed into fruit. And this afternoon, while seeing to the chickens, a lovely purplish-blue hue caught my eye and I realized the plums were ripe and ready to be picked. Not too many - about three pounds, I would guess. But they're everything a plum should be, the essence of plummy goodness.

All of which adds to my conviction that to be a Happy Gardener you should hope for the best, accept that this year's garden will be different from last year's, marvel in the miracles that present themselves every day, forgive yourself for the things that don't work, and be grateful for the gifts Mother Nature bestows.

Like a handful of plums.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Under cover

I scrubbed my running shoes the other day - they were a mess after a summer's worth of dust and dirt - and when I was done I turned them upside down on the veranda steps to drain and dry.

And who was hiding underneath when I retrieved them the next morning?

This little fellow.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Homesteading University

Kim has had her hands full this summer with all things chicken related, much of it good and some of it challenging. And then this weekend, something new: bumblefoot.

Bumblefoot is an infection in a chicken's foot, caused by anything from a cut or scrape to a splinter from a roost or damage done by jumping down from a roost that's too high. If the infected tissue is cut out and the foot treated with antibiotics the chicken can go on to lead a long and happy life, but if left untreated bumblefoot can eventually spread to bones and other tissues and be fatal. The surgery is usually an at-home affair because (1) it's easy, (2) most vets have no idea about chickens in general and bumblefoot specifically, and (3) even if they did the cost would be prohibitive.

Kim noticed one of her hens limping on Saturday, had a look at her foot and found the tell-tale black scab. As luck would have it our friends Toni and Steve had been telling us about treating their own chicken for bumblefoot just the week before, and even luckier, they were willing to come to Mucky Boots to give Kim a lesson.

Here's the process:

Step 1: Spa treatment. Ms. Bumblefoot was treated to a warm epsom salts soak. Yes, that's our kitchen sink. And yes, we disinfected the heck out of everything when we were done.

Step 2: Surgery. Steve used a small exacto knife to slice off the scab. This sounds gruesome but it was actually very straightforward. Ms. Bumblefoot, wrapped up in a towel and placed on her side, took it all in stride. Once the scab was gone the infected tissue was visible, and it was a matter of gently and carefully cutting it out while leaving the healthy tissue behind. This case of bumblefoot was caught quite early so there wasn't much infected tissue to remove, and Ms. Bumblefoot was good at letting us know when we were tinkering with healthy tissue instead by starting to struggle instead of lying quietly. Toni suggested we err on the side of removing too little tissue rather than too much; more can always be removed in the days following surgery.

Step 3: Bandaging. We daubed the wound with antibiotic ointment, covered it with a non-stick gauze pad cut down to size, then wrapped it up with stretchy self-sticking tape.

Step 4: Repeat. Every one or two days we will repeat the whole process, looking for and removing any more infected tissue until we've got it all and the wound can heal. In the meantime Ms. Bumblefoot is being housed in one of the brooder boxes, up high on saw horses so she's out of the dust of the chicken yard and can survey the goings on of her friends down below.

We were lucky to have had friends willing to share their expertise - expertise gained through a lot of internet surfing and YouTube watching, plus a large dose of bravery in being willing to translate that into practice. Operating on a case of bumblefoot is just one example of a skill that isn't generally known any more and people are needing to learn again. Wouldn't it be great to have an electronic bulletin board where people in a community could post a request ("Looking for someone who knows how to operate on bumblefoot") or make an offer ("I'm canning pickles on Tuesday between 2 and 5 if anyone wants to learn how"). Kind of like Craigslist, but for the free exchange of homesteading skills. An informal, locally based Homesteading University.

I know there are all kinds of reasons why this might not be practical, like liability, and the dangers of welcoming strangers into your home. But couldn't it be a way to spread knowledge, build resilience, and turn strangers into a community?

Monday, August 5, 2013

Garden Report

My post about magically appearing zucchinis made me think it's about time I reported on the progress of this year's vegetable garden.

Most crushing disappointment: the onions. I should never have boasted how well we grow alliums here at Mucky Boots, because this year the onions have been a disaster. Germination was about 15%, so I replaced all my seed and began again, and still only had a 50% germination rate. All of which put me a few weeks behind. And once the seedlings made it into the garden they went on strike, and have done very poorly. In past years I have been harvesting my onions by this time, enough to almost see us through the year, but this year we'll be lucky to get a dozen onions big enough to eat. It makes me want to cry, which I guess is appropriate given it's onions we're talking about. I'm just glad the garlic did fine.

Most frivolous success: nasturtiums. My companion planting book suggests planting nasturtiums among squash plants to attract pollinators. I took this advice to heart and now my wildly vining, sprawling squash plants are entwined with wildly vining, sprawling nasturtiums in vibrant reds and oranges.

Most practical success: Cucumbers. I grew some pretty good pickling cukes last year, but my heart belongs to long, elegant English cucumbers, with which I have had no success. But this year I have four lush, healthy plants flowering like mad and already producing fruit. Best of all, I ate the first one a few days ago and it was the juicy, tasty essence of cucumber-ness.

Most gloat-worthy success: The winter squash. Unlike the zucchini, which produced three and promptly quit (why am I the only person in the universe who can't grow enough zucchini?) the winter squash plants are pumping out more squash than ever before. I have squash growing in beds, between beds, up a strawberry tower, along the ground, and even up the middle of a stand of dried up daisies. There are still a few things that could go wrong before harvest time, but it's looking good, and given my past failures in this department I'm giving myself permission to gloat.

Winners of the "Never Again" Award: cilantro and parsley. I can't grow either. The cilantro bolts the instant I turn my back, before I have a chance to harvest any leaves, and the parsley just sits in the dirt and looks at me, refusing to grow past the seedling stage. I've tried, and I give up.

Winner of the S-L-O-W-E-S-T Growth Ever Award: the cabbages. I don't know what the heck they're doing - I planted early varieties and they're barely starting to form heads. Was it too cold? Then too hot? Too wet, then too dry? They're progressing, just very, very slowly.

Winner of the "I Like It After All" award: broccoli. Last year it was kale, my formerly favourite vegetable to revile. This year it's broccoli, which I had decided, once I regained my sense of smell, I didn't like. But that was supermarket broccoli. My own broccoli, right out of the garden, lightly sauteed so it's bright green but still with some crunch, with a squeeze of lemon overtop? That's an entirely different story.

How has your garden been faring?

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Where'd this one come from?

I have been something of a Squash Nerd this year. I've always tried to grow squash but haven't usually been very successful. I've had trouble with germinating, and transplanting, and flowering, and pollinating, and ripening. Basically I've had trouble with just about every stage of a squash's development from seed packet to dinner plate.

But I've learned a thing or two along the way. Like the fact that squash don't take to being transplanted, and that even if I'm really excited about things growing in the springtime, the squash plants aren't necessarily as excited and won't grow until they're good and ready. So now I seed them directly into the garden, a few weeks later than I used to.

And I learned about male flowers and female flowers and the whole process of pollination. I still haven't figured out why one day there will only be male flowers, and the next day only female, but I suppose Mother Nature has the right to a few mysteries.

So this year, armed with my hard-won experience, I dosed the squash beds with a generous amount of fish compost (a splurge, but so worth it), waited until the weather warmed up before seeding, and checked on the progress of the plants day by day.

They began to flower about two weeks ago, and since then, every morning I have made the trek back to the vegetable garden to search out male flowers which I would pluck, strip of petals, and then carry around from bed to bed looking for female flowers to pollinate. And of course looking for signs of success from the previous days' pollinating ventures.

So when my zucchini plant produced its first zucchini I was thrilled. I cut it off the bush, carried it proudly in the house, sliced it and marinated it in a lovely vinaigrette, ate the whole thing in one sitting, and then began waiting for the next one.

Apparently a watched zucchini plant is something like a tea kettle, because it has since produced nothing. Some flowers, which I have faithfully pollinated, but every morning as I have looked under the big leaves for any sign of an impending zucchini, there has been nothing but disappointment.

Which is why I was a little surprised to find this yesterday.

Did it grow that big in one day? I don't think so. So where, exactly, was it hiding?

Saturday, July 27, 2013

One day only

Today, for one day only, I have a perfect garden.

Today my week-long weeding and cleaning blitz came to a close. Today my big, strong, hockey-player student spread four cubic yards of bark mulch in the perennial garden while I followed along behind him tickling the mulch onto all the nooks and crannies.

Today there is not a weed to be seen. The edges are tidy and the paths are swept clean.

Today my student's mom, when she came to pick him up at the end of his shift, called my garden a Martha Stewart Garden.

Tomorrow there will be weeds. Tomorrow there will be more dried-up columbines ready to be cut back. Tomorrow I will wake up and find some disorder where today there is order. But today, for one day, everything is perfect.

And you know what? I'm looking forward to tomorrow.

To my surprise, I find the neatness and order of today's garden just a little unsatisfying. "Hallelujah!" Mother Nature and her angels are shouting, after five years of trying to cure me of my perfectionism. Well, I may be a slow learner, but I think I've finally got this lesson down. Finally I realize there's something to be said for the unpredictability of Mother Nature's version of a garden, for the unexpected odd bits that pop up to surprise you, for the asymmetry and wonkiness and messy bits. My orderly everything-matches-because-it's-just-been-mulched garden is a little . . . well, boring.

So this evening, for one evening only, I'll sit on the verandah and look out on perfection. And tomorrow I'll embrace a less tidy, more real garden, all the more beautiful for its imperfection.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013


When I regained my sense of smell what I most looked forward to were lilacs. And sure enough, as soon as the lilacs bloomed, I spent days with my nose in the blossoms, sniffing up a dozen years worth of missed scent.

I think the only reason I didn't feel the same way about lilies is because they didn't form any part of the scented backdrop to my childhood. Who had lilies way back then? Nobody I knew. But I've got them now, and do they ever smell wonderful.

They smell wonderful when my nose is buried in them, but they also smell wonderful when I'm at the other end of the garden. Holy smokes, does that scent carry! Tonight while I was out watering some new transplants I kept sniffing my arm thinking it was my insect repellent I was smelling. But no, it was the lily gang hanging out in the shade of  the magnolia tree, throwing open their petals and saying "Come sniff!"

So I did.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Math equation of the day

1 uncovered straw bale 
14 chickens 
2 turned backs 
= 1 big mess

Thursday, July 18, 2013


Last year I was looking for something to plant in the old washing machine tub parked by the pond. I had been filling it with annuals but decided to switch to a perennial because hey, who doesn't like less work? So I went hunting for something with the right scale for the tub, that could handle the part sun, part dappled shade, dry unless I remember to water it conditions. Usually, when I go to the garden store with a list of requirements in hand, I end up getting sucked in by the first pretty thing I see. In this case, it was a picture, because I bought bulbs.

Oxalis deppei is what I came home with. Then I did a Google search and found out how many people battle invasive oxalis in their lawns and garden beds and I thanked my lucky stars that I was planting in a container, not a bed, at a good distance from any of the perennial beds. And I reasoned that since it is hardy only to Zone 7 (which we are only in a good year) any problems would be solved with a good dose of winter.

It did well last year, filling the tub with its two-colour shamrock leaves and pink flowers, and so I was curious this spring whether it would return. It did, not quite as luxuriantly, but it slowly filled out and now it is blooming. Beautifully.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Chicken pickin'

I think it's past time for an update from the Mucky Boots chickie front. Not only do we have the sixteen Black Australorp chicks (now ten weeks old, I think - I can never keep track), we now have eighteen Buff Orpington and eighteen Welsummer chicks, all hatched right here. In case you're keeping track, that's 52 chicks. Wowza.

First the Australorps. They are now living in the coop, in a separate enclosure from Hector and the Hens but hanging out when them during the day. We continue to have trouble with our local racoons and eagles, so when one of us isn't around the teenagers are confined to the chicken yard, lounging on the roost...

... but when Kim makes an appearance they stop whatever they're doing and run to her.

It took only a couple of days to teach them how to come when called and how to put themselves to bed, in the right enclosure, at night. The other day an eagle flew low over the area where they free range and they all bolted immediately for the coop, unlike some of the grown ups who stayed outside to see what was going on. They are easily the sweetest, smartest and best behaved bunch of chicks we have ever had.

Which leads us to the babies Buffs, easily the worst bunch of troublemakers we have had. More about that later. 

Here are the Baby Bunch at a few days old. The Welsummers are another heritage breed, smaller than the Buffs and the Australorps. They lay a large, terra-cotta coloured egg, and are known for their appearance on the Kellogg's Corn Flakes box. Holy moley, are they cute, racing stripes and all.

Kim built a new brooder box for the Baby Bunch, since we've never had so many chicks at once before. It's huge, about four feet by six feet, and cleverly made of plywood panels zip-tied together so it's easy to break down and store once we're finished with it. (Yes, you really can construct anything with duct tape and zip ties...).

Kim has been experimenting with a new watering system - she's fed up with rambunctious chicks flicking litter into the regular waterers, so she bought some nipples from a local dealer and used some PVC pipe (note the zip-ties) and a big jug on an elevated stand to gravity feed the water. It works like a hamster waterer: the chicks jiggle the nipple with their beaks and a few drops of water come out. They took to it like a charm.

The Baby Bunch are now three weeks old, and are already spending the day in the chicken tractor eating bugs and grass. We love the Welsummers: they're curious and calm and beautiful to boot.

The Buffs - they're another story. About a week ago Kim noticed one of the Buffs had a bloody tail and realized there was some feather picking going on. With chicks this usually arises when the tail feathers start to come in - the quill part is blood-rich and looks darker than the surrounding skin or downy fluff, and as any chicken farmer knows, the sight of blood can throw an otherwise civilized chicken flock into a cannibalistic blood frenzy. Fortunately Kim was right there when the frenzy started, and she was able to whisk the victim to safety. But as she continued to watch she realized the feather picking was more widespread, and so  the Mucky Boots Anti-Pick Campaign was launched.

Feather picking is something you want to nip in the bud as fast as you can. Not only can the chicks do serious damage to each other, it can be a habit that, once established, is very hard to break. So all other projects came to a screeching halt while Kim got on the case.

After a few phone calls and some internet research Kim went to our local farm store and bought some Stop Pick, which is a cayenne-based ointment you dab onto the areas being picked. The red colour attracts the attention of the pickers, but one taste is supposed to discourage them from continuing. And it worked, sort of. The frenzy definitely stopped, but the picking didn't entirely cease.

For the next few days Kim was parked beside the brooder, watching to see who the culprits were and then banding them, so she could keep track. She alternately separated the chicks being picked and the pickers, trying to see which worked best, and finally settled on keeping the pickers away from the rest of the flock. But they needed to be separated from each other, too, and she didn't have enough small cages. So she built some, using plastic tubbies, hardware cloth and (you guessed it) zip ties.

And the Mucky Boots Solitary Confinement Reform School for Pickin' Chickens was born.

There are currently four residents - all Buffs of course - and the problem appears to have ceased. Kim has also switched to a red light bulb in the brooder (to camouflage pick-worthy areas) and has attached pockets made of half-inch hardware cloth to the sides of the brooder that she fills with kale and other greens, to give the chicks something to pick and pull at other than each other. And she made the decision to get the chicks out into the tractor sooner than she might have otherwise, to keep them distracted and busy and make sure they're too tired at the end of the day to resort to bad behaviour. Can you tell she used to be a teacher?

We have never had this problem before, and this is the fifth or sixth batch of chicks we have brooded under similar conditions. Our best guess was that we gave them too much light (by way of the heat lamps that stayed on all night), which was part of the reason Kim switched to a red bulb (and why we spent an hour tacking tar paper over all the windows of the workshop to block the light, causing our neighbours to wonder if we were launching a grow op). Fortunately the weather is warm enough now that the workshop is warm enough through the night for the partially-feathered chicks, so even the red bulb gets turned off for nine hours of dark sleeping time.

And how have the Welsummers done through all this drama? They have minded their own business, committing nary a pick themselves.

Postscript: Kim wanted me to say that it's not all the Buffs causing problems, just four of them. Four troublesome chicks giving their hatch mates a bad name. But if there's anyone who can help them along the reform path back to the sweet and amusing Buff breed we know, it's Kim.

Monday, July 8, 2013

When is a vegetable garden not a vegetable garden?

When it's a flower garden, of course.

When we first moved to Mucky Boots I was a little impatient with all the flowers the previous owners had planted in the vegetable garden. Yarrow, poppies, roses, lavender, butterfly bushes, daisies. What the heck were they all doing there, I wondered. Sure, they were pretty, but I was set on being a practical, productive Serious Vegetable Gardener, and they were taking up valuable real estate.

After a year or two, once I had learned a thing or two, I realized all those flowers were attracting the pollinators to the garden. I had them to thank for all the peas, beans, tomatoes, squash, melons and cucumbers we ate. So my impatience turned into appreciation for the job the flowers were doing.

Now I don't care about what sort of function those flowers perform: I'm in love with how beautiful they are, and that's enough for me. Beauty is enough. What a revelation.

My herb bed is full of borage volunteers. I'm amazed they're there, because I haven't planted any in the vegetable garden for a couple of years.

The mallow growing in the same bed is in its third year of self seeding. I don't have to do any work at all (other than recognizing a mallow seedling when I see one, so I don't weed it out by mistake) and look at what I am given.

Remember what I said about having second thoughts about giving poppies a free ride and retracting my offer to let them grow wherever they are inclined to? Well I'm like the Fiddler on the Roof, thinking it out again, because I'm back to whole hearted infatuation. These poppies (and their friends the calendula) have made themselves at home in a bed that's supposed to belong to three blueberry bushes. I check periodically on the blueberries, to make sure they're not being smothered. They aren't - they're being beautifully adorned instead.

There are three rose plants in the vegetable garden. They mystify me. I thought roses were supposed to be fussy, demanding plants requiring dedicated care. All I do is hack them back in the fall, and they repay me by  looking beautiful all summer.

This all signals a change in how I view my vegetable garden. Our first growing season I was so focused on squirrelling food away Kim could barely get a few strawberries in her mouth before I was yanking them away to freeze for the winter. I canned and pickled and froze, and realized that while it was nice to have that food in storage, there are only so many pickles one can eat, and frozen vegetables are always a poor second compared with fresh. So I have gradually relaxed about preserving food and focused instead on eating as much fresh from the garden as we can, and growing vegetables that can either overwinter in the garden (like carrots, beets, and hardy greens) or store well (like onions and garlic). All of which means the pressure to grow as much as possible has been eased, so there is more room in my garden for all those beautiful flowers.

And there's more room in my heart, too. That's a Mucky Boots miracle.
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