Thursday, January 31, 2013

New leaf

January means making resolutions for many people, and I am no exception. Only in my case, this year, my resolutions aren't about what I eat or how much exercise I get (okay, I make some of those, too...) but about how I care for my tools. And about what tools I choose in the first place.

I am someone who has refused to spend more than $10 for pruners because I keep losing them. My speciality is dropping them into the bucket I'm collecting weeds and clippings in and then forgetting where I've put them so they eventually end up buried in the compost pile.

Well, no more. I have turned a corner. Turned over a new leaf. Crossed the street from the Land of Lost Pruners to the Country of Responsible Tool Owners. Yes, I have taken the plunge and bought myself some Felco Number 8 pruners.

You may be wondering what has motivated me to risk $60 on pruners that, if I don't reform my habits, may end up at the bottom of a pile of weeds and chicken poop. Three things: Paula's repeated advice, Harry's tutorial on tool care, and an occupational therapist's suggestion that I focus on the ergonomics of my gardening.

Paula is a skilled and sensible gardener who has suggested more than once that I stop spending my money on cheap pruners, buy a better pair already, and then take good care of them. (Thank you, Paula, for being so patient with me!)

Harry is a new friend, a retired master gardener and arborist who is spending his retirement passing on a lifetime's worth of knowledge and experience to anyone he think might use it. In the fall he spent an afternoon giving me a lesson on how to prune shrubs and trees, which culminated in a practical demonstration on how to take care of a good set of pruners. Here's the drill.
  • Use a green scrubby to clean off any wax, pitch or sap. If the pruners are really dirty you might need to use a razor blade.
  • Then use a small piece of 220 grit sandpaper on both surfaces of the blades. Use each small piece only once.
  • Check the tightness of all the screws.
  • Finish by spraying WD-40 on a piece of towel and using it to wipe down the blades and all the mechanisms. This will also disinfect the pruners, which is always a good idea. 
Lastly, a few sessions with an occupational therapist at the Arthritis Society convinced me that if I used better quality and more ergonomically friendly tools I could reduce the strain on my joints. My triumvirate of friendly advice givers all suggested a set of Felco pruners, and who was I to argue? Harry suggested the Number 8 model as being particularly good for people with arthritis.

I have used them in the garden a few times so far, in exactly the kind of circumstances that in the past have led to loss: big cleanups with lots of buckets of clippings and weeds being dumped in a wheelbarrow and then the compost pile, and I am happy to say I haven't had a moment of not knowing where they are. And the cleaning routine is quick and easy and so far has kept my new pruners looking pretty good.

If you, too, are sometimes challenged by your arthritis in the garden, Harry had another suggestion: wavy bladed shears take much less force to use and don't get stuck in whatever you're trying to cut down. Given the quantity of bunches of stems I have to cut down in the perennial garden in the fall, and how hard I find it on my wrists, shoulders and elbows, I think this will be a good purchase.

Provided I prove I can hang onto my Felcos, that is.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

My friend Linda

I first met Linda almost 11 years ago, and we have been friends for all of that time except maybe the first two days when we were still getting to know each other. She is a warm, loving, sparkling, funny woman and I treasure every visit I get to have with her.

One of the most special things about Linda is that she brings beauty with her wherever she goes. Her home is full of art and pottery and sunshine. And flowers, especially flowers. I think every blossom in the flower shop must perk up when Linda walks through the door, wanting to look their best so she'll take them home.

I have three bunches of flowers adorning my house these days, all courtesy of Linda and her partner. There are the orchids they sent when I had sinus surgery in November...

...the paper whites, now blooming, that were a Christmas present...

...and the tulips they brought when they came for a visit yesterday.

Linda, and all the flowers she brings into my life, are a wonderful antidote to the get-the-job-done frame of mind I usually find myself in, the utilitarian, task-driven, practical mindset that governs much of my life. I am surrounded by natural beauty where I live, but somehow I don't often enough look beyond the clean-up that needs doing, and the shrubs that need pruning, and the beds that need rebuilding to enjoy the beauty that is there, just for its own sake. My perennial beds are full of bright blossoms, but somehow I look at them like a technician. Linda and her gifts of flowers remind me to also look with an artist's eyes, and a poet's.

Thank you Linda, for reminding me to stop and smell the...tulips.

Monday, January 21, 2013


Not only has it forgotten to rain for days and days, the sun has been shining

Is there anyone else in my neighbourhood who is as gobsmacked as me? Winters here are usually wet, wet, wet and gloomy, gloomy, gloomy. If that weren't bad enough, apparently our December tied for the fewest hours of sunshine on record for our area.

Mother Nature seems to be working overtime to make up for it, because it has been sunny and clear day after day. Crispy cold, with the temperature dipping below freezing every night and staying within a couple of degrees of that during the day. But with the sun shining, who cares? It makes me want to move to Alberta, the land of big skies and winter sunshine.

Everyone and everything is enjoying the sun, from the chickens to the vegetables to the bulbs starting to think about sprouting.

 The freezing temperatures every night have been hard on the greens still hanging on in the garden, but man, are those greens tough. This chard had no protection from the snow we had through December, but just look at it basking in the sunshine, gearing up for its spring resurrection.

The big surprise, though, has been the Bambi lettuce. I know I've gone on and on about how much I like this gem lettuce, and I've also written about how well it survived the first of the cold weather. But even after two weeks of freezing night time temperatures, with only a flimsy row cover for protection, look how well it's doing. Remember, this is lettuce we're talking about!

Most of the rest of the garden isn't looking so hot. I was a bit lackadaisical about my fall clean-up this year so there is a lot of work waiting for me once everything unfreezes. 

But as long as the sun keeps shining, who cares?

Friday, January 18, 2013

Drought and small pleasures

Drought? On Vancouver Island in January? Believe it or not, we haven't had any rain (or snow, for that matter) in eight days. Impossible.

That's Item Number One on today's list of fascinating news from Mucky Boots. Here's Item Number Two.

Yes, chocolate pudding. Newsworthy chocolate pudding. Newsworthy because I am back on my anti-arthritis can't eat anything fun diet: no gluten, no dairy, no eggs, no caffeine, as little of any kind of sugar as I can manage. Which means small pleasures seem hard to come by. Until this, that is.

Quinoa Revolution is the second cookbook produced by the sister team of Patricia Green and Carolyn Hemming. Their first book, Quinoa 365, has been a favourite of mine, so it was an easy decision to add the second book to my cookbook collection. 

To celebrate my new purchase I decided to make Cafe Mocha Pudding. I don't want to violate any copyright laws, but since I'm giving them a free plug maybe the authors won't mind, so here's the gist of the recipe.

Cook 1/2 cup quinoa in three times as much coffee (decaf, if you prefer). Since this is more liquid than is normally used, the result is very soft, almost mushy quinoa. Put it in a blender with 1/2 cup milk (I used almond milk), 1/3 cup cocoa, 1/2 tsp vanilla and as much of any kind of sweetener as you would like (they suggest 1/3 cup sugar, but I used a small glug of maple syrup instead). Then blitz the heck out of it for 2-3 minutes, until it is very smooth.

The authors then suggest refrigerating it for an hour or two before eating, but I found the looser texture right out of the blender a bit more pleasant than after it had set up, at which point it was pretty stiff. Either way, it was delicious, legal, and definitely a pleasure. As you can tell from this photo.

Just think of the flavour variations that are possible with this technique: I could cook the quinoa in chai tea instead of coffee. Or green tea. Or any flavour of tea. Or lemon-spiked water. Or orange juice. Or berry juice. Or almond milk with a vanilla pod.

Yum. That's all I can say, just yum.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Getting real in the garden

It's that time of year again: the 2013 seed catalogues have come in from my favourite suppliers and now it's time to figure out what the heck I'm going to do in the garden this year.

I really didn't know anything about growing vegetables before we arrived here, and so the last four years have felt like a big experiment, full of the novelty of any new adventure. But now it's time to get real. Or at least real-er. Not that it won't still be fun - it will. But I think I have enough data and experience now to be more realistic about what I can successfully grow. Here's what I'm thinking.

Thought #1: Alliums are the stars at Mucky Boots. The very first thing we planted even before we had moved in was garlic, and we have loved it from the start. There is nothing like home-grown garlic and onions, and somehow the conditions here seem suited for it. So we grow a lot of them: garlic, leeks and shallots, and red, green and yellow onions. I'm very happy with the varieties of red (Redwing) and yellow (Copra) onions in particular - they are indestructible in storage. It may not be the most economically wise thing to do, to devote such a large amount of garden space to growing things that are so inexpensive to buy, but we continue to do it because the quality is so much higher and because it means we get the satisfaction of cooking almost every day with something we grew.

Thought #2: I should only grow what I'm willing to eat. Take beans for example. In my first year's garden I grew lots and lots of beans. Pole beans and bush beans. Yellow beans, green beans, purple beans. Soybeans, filet beans and beans for drying. Consequently I preserved a lot of beans. I pickled beans, I blanched and froze beans, I dried beans. And I learned a few things - namely that there is only so much pickled anything I am willing to eat (I'm much more likely now to reach for something fermented than traditionally pickled), and frozen beans have an awful texture. So awful that most of that first year's frozen beans ended up being given to the chickens. I thought maybe I did something wrong (I blanched for a short period of time, then shocked with ice water, then used a vacuum sealer) so the next year I followed a different set of advice and didn't blanch, I just cut up and vacuum sealed. Still awful.

And the dried beans! My third year I wanted to see how much protein I could get out of the garden so I grew two different varieties of beans for drying. They did pretty well, and I'm happy to know it can work, but it was too much bed space and labour for the result. So last year I planted four measly feet of pole beans for eating fresh, and that was even more than we wanted to eat. This year: three feet.

On the other hand, I keep planting more and more carrots and more and more hardy greens, like chard, bok choy and (gasp!) kale. Between interplanting with onions and covering seedlings with remay cloth I seem to have found a way to produce pretty decent carrots, which we can't seem to get enough of. Ditto for the greens, which seem especially suited to our climate. I can grow them, we like to eat them - this is a recipe for success.

Thought #3: Pelleted seeds are wonderful.  Last year I planted my first pelleted seeds: carrots and lettuce. If you have grown either of those vegetables you know how tiny the seeds are. Which means, unless you have much greater dexterity and better eyesight than I do, a lot of thinning. With the right mindset this can be meditative, but it more usually feels like very fiddly torture. So when I saw seeds being offered with an organic pelleting I decided to give them a try. It's kind of like a candy coating on each seed, which makes them easier to space when you're seeding them in the garden. The seeds cost a bit more, but there's much less wastage. I'm sold on them, and will continue to buy them.

Thought #4: We live in a forest. We better get used to it. You can probably tell from this photo that our vegetable garden is in a clearing carved out from the surrounding forest. Which means it gets pretty good light, but not great light - which limits the kinds of things we can successfully grow. I've figured out we can grow pretty much anything, but not necessarily really well. Eggplant and peppers turn out puny, and winter squash seems to be a hit-or-miss proposition. So I've decided I need to be more strategic in my garden planning, and factor in the amount of sunlight each bed gets when I am figuring out crop rotations.

One crop that needs to be abandoned is grapes. There are three mature vines along one side of the vegetable garden, and we have yet to get anything resembling a harvest. There's just not enough sunlight. And they're grapes for making wine, not for eating, and neither of us is interested in wine making. To top it off, they contribute to the lack of sunlight for the vegetables. Verdict: they're coming down.

Thought #5: Berries are way easier to grow than fruit trees. When we moved to Mucky Boots we inherited a small orchard with three venerable apple trees (Pink Lady, Cox Orange Pippin and a crabapple) and a number of younger trees (cherry, Asian pear, peach and plum). We added a whole bunch more: pear, fig, more apples and plums. And we quickly learned that there is a disease and a bug for every season for every one of those fruit trees. It's hard to grow fruit!

Berries, on the other hand, seem to practically grow themselves. We have all kinds here - strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, gooseberries and red currants - and they all do well. Every year some types do better than others, but we've never had a bad year. Plus the investment of time before they begin to produce is much shorter. So we're going to replace the casualties in our orchard (between diseases and bears we have had a few) with more berries, not with more fruit trees. We're going with the flow on this one.

Five thoughts in one day. I better quit while I'm ahead.
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