Our First Feathered Friends

September 11, 2012 at 9:09 pm (DIY, food, Gardening, Other, permaculture) (, , , , , , , , , , )

Following a mid-July family getaway, I set to work on a singular goal: GET CHICKENS!

I’d been thinking about whether to do this for a long time.  I’d read so many books on chicken keeping that I felt there was nothing left to learn except through firsthand experience.  Making the decision all the more clear was the fact that I already had a covered four-post structure and weather-proof shed in my backyard that I wasn’t using.  Following a major clean-up, some minor reapirs, and the addition of nest boxes and a sturdy bar for roosting, the shed would become a large coop where the birds would be safe at night.  The covered structure only needed some physical support, chicken wire, and a recycled screen door to become an outdoor chicken run where the birds would have access to fresh air and sunshine.

Eleanor helping paint the door frame; shed by the basement door for nighttime housing.

The kitchen window looks down on the chicken run–perfect for keeping an eye out for the girls!

The building process was pretty straightforward, the only major snag being the nest of angry yellowjackets in the ground beneath one of the corner posts.  The vibration of my hammering drove them crazy; they would pour out of the entrance to their nest, fly all around scouting for danger, then slowly calm down and go back inside.  Having to back off and wait them out was really slowing things down.  I suffered two rather unpleasant stings to my hand, but soldiered on, talking sweetly to them and telling them I meant them no harm.  In fact, if they would just let me finish, the chickens would soon be helping to fertilize the garden, which in turn would host insects for them to live off of.  Who bargains with bugs, anyway?

Hubbie suited up to work over the wasp nest.

I saved the post above the wasp nest for last and then I did what any sane woman would do–I begged my dear Hubbie to get in there and nail up the chicken wire for me.  He kindly obliged, putting on thick leather gloves and his winter raincoat for wasp protection.  He was sweating bullets in the middle of the only “heatwave” our miserable summer could muster up and, thinking he’d be covered in angry wasps, he planned to get in there and get the job done as quickly as possible.  And then–miracle of miracles!–not a single yellowjacket emerged as he drove in the first nail.  Proceeding with much trepidation, he completed the job without siting a single one.  The hive was gone!

For the last six weeks we believed they had simply moved house.  Strangely, all that remained was a large hole that looked to be the handiwork of a small animal.  Then, last night I came across the fact that a skunk or raccoon will dig out a wasp nest and eat the larvae.  For several nights in a row a few weeks ago Hubbie and I had seen a skunk rather cutely waddling through the unmown grass in the front yard.  Mystery solved; thank you Skunk!

The girls are introduced to their new home. Two standard-sized hens hopped right out; the pigeon-sized bantams had to consider it.

Buying that first bag of chicken feed was like crossing a threshold, a point of no return: we were really getting chickens!  We drove all the way out to Maple Ridge to pick out the four hens from a woman named Loretta.  She had dozens of chickens on her 12-acre property and had, at one time, tried to keep them separated by breed so that she could raise purebred chicks.  But, she greatly valued them having free range, so they tended not to breed as she wished them to.  She said that she gave up after a while and settled for raising healthy, happy mixed-breed birds–not such a bad compromise, really.  When it comes to dogs, I’ve always preferred a friendly mutt over a finicky purebred myself, so I totally agreed with her philosophy.

We chose to take home two likely-pure Old English Game Bantams (very small, amusing, and good for children) and two standard-sized hens.  The largest hen, Goldie, is likely an Orpington x Cochin cross and the white hen with gray-green feet she said was probably an Araucana x Cochin.

Dada gets a turn at the feeding trough. The Strawberry Shortcake tray from 1985 is what we serve “treats” on. It makes a nice metallic sound that the girls now recognize.

Goldie and Lord Snow hang out together a good bit.  Here they’re dust-bathing in an old metal sink filled with dirt.

Having hens has been fairly easy so far.  Only once have we had a missing-chicken-scare!  We were late eating dinner one night and the girls were antsy for their pre-bed free range time so we let them out and continued with our dinner, keeping a close eye out the window for them.  When I saw the neighbor’s cat in our yard, we all ran outside to shoo him away and do a head count to be sure and… we couldn’t find Fluffy anywhere!

Her beautiful coloring is called Wheaten. OEG Bantams are only about the size of pigeons at full maturity.

Fluffy was Eleanor’s personal selection and is so sweet, Ellie was handling her and hand-feeding her the day we brought them home.  We were quite sure Johnny Trouble couldn’t have gotten her that fast and there were no signs of a chicken abduction, so we just waited for the sunlight to fade that magical amount that would trigger the chickens’ head-for-home instinct.  For the remainder of our meal we spoke very seriously to Eleanor about the slim chances of this bird returning; we, perhaps a bit insensitively, tried to console her with the reminder that these chickens were to be food-producing animals, not pets, so we shouldn’t be too sentimental about it.  About half an hour later, quite unbelievably, Fluffy came walking around the corner of the house just as the other birds were starting to make their way toward the coop door.  She had been hiding from the cat, we supposed.  She and Dada did a reunion dance and that was that; they went in to roost for the night.

It turns out that chickens are the ultimate creatures of habit and, for this reason, it isn’t hard at all to get them in and out.  Since our coop is not contained within or directly attached to the outdoor run but is actually separated by about five feet, I was worried in the beginning that it would be difficult to herd them into the run in the morning without setting up some kind of “chicken chute” to prevent them escaping.  By now, though, we’ve settled into a timely routine that works for us.

The hens now get some free range time in the morning when they first come out of the coop and in the evening before they go back in to roost for the night.

Now, we’re just waiting for eggs.  Not wanting to raise chicks our first time, we started with 4-5 month old pullets, so they should be getting near old enough to lay by now.  However, egg production is influenced by hormones triggered by daylight and since the days are getting shorter and shorter, it could be spring before we have consistently good egg production, even if they started laying  now.  Supplemental lighting for a few hours a day may be something to try during the winter months.  For now, we’re just enjoying watching and being with our first feathered friends!


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My Foray Into Vermi-Composting

January 19, 2012 at 6:59 pm (DIY, food, Gardening, permaculture, Vancouver) (, , , , , , , )

If you read my previous post about the City of Vancouver’s various programs for handling organic waste, you’ll know that composting with worms is a great option for residents of apartments and condos because worm bins are compact and odor-free.  My family is fortunate to have found an affordable house to rent in Vancouver (what’s really rare is that we have a basement; there’s no “mortgage-helper” suite below) and we have a yard that is all ours to garden as we please.  So, I do have one of the city-subsidized black plastic compost bins in my garden, but I wanted to try out vermi-composting for myself.

A tangle of worms--are they having a party?

There are several reasons I wanted to start a worm bin; they boil down to convenience, speed, and frequency of harvest.  When it’s cold and rainy outside, it’s a pain in the neck running out behind the garden to the big black bin, so my indoor compost collection bucket started to overflow and stink; I tried keeping a larger bucket just outside the backdoor to reduce the number of trips out back, but it just served to attract raccoons and those little buggers soon found that all they had to do was roll the bucket down the stairs and it would crash open, spilling its delicious contents.  Having a worm bin in the basement is way more convenient, although I’d have to expand my vermi-composting operation by three or four times my current capacity to be able to handle all my kitchen scraps this way; for now, we still have to make trips to the backyard bin, just not as frequently.  In my experience so far, food scraps are digested much quicker in the worm bin than in the backyard composter, probably due, in part, to the steady temperature and humidity levels of the indoors compared to the wild swings in outdoor conditions.  Keeping the worm bin indoors means I can have compost year-round, unlike with the backyard bin, which all but ceases activity in the cold of winter.  Whereas the outdoor bin produces a harvest of compost once, maybe twice, a year, the worm bin yields smaller but more frequent harvests of a high-quality soil additive fine enough for seed-starting.  Aside from the foregoing reasons, I find the ecosystem of the worm bin fascinating to watch.  Give me a few more months with my worms and I might be calling them pets.

I’ve mentioned Frank before: he was the original owner of this house and lived here for over sixty years.  Well, his family didn’t do such a great job clearing out his things when they moved the old man to a seniors’ home.  Going through a garden storage space under the house, I found a large (I’d guess 15″ x 24″ x 8″) Rubbermaid storage container with a tight-fitting lid and I immediately thought of making a worm bin out of it.  I knew enough from reading up on it and I already had a source for worms, so I didn’t feel the need to spend $25 getting the bin and tutorial at the Compost Demonstration Garden.  Worms and bacteria breathe oxygen, so to ventilate the plastic bin, I drilled holes all the way around it and about two inches below the top edge.  For fear that the worms might try to escape, I used the smallest bit in my toolbox, although now I realize this was an unfounded fear: given enough oxygen and moisture inside, the worms won’t brave the dry air outside.  They also prefer the dark, and since my bin is clear plastic, I keep it covered with a towel.  Still, they congregate in the center where they’re covered with bedding and have plenty to eat.  When I first introduced the worms to their new home, I made bedding for them by shredding newspaper–and lots of it because it compacts when wet.  I got my worms from a friend (thanks Sarah!) who has the official city-subsidized worm bin that comes with Red Wigglers.  She gave them to me in a bucket of unfinished compost so I’d have plenty of bacteria and whatever other microbes are essential to the process (and because it’s impossible to really separate them).  The worms settled in nicely and within a few weeks, I could tell their numbers were increasing and they could start to handle small amounts of kitchen scraps.

When the old bedding got really mushy, I added more shredded newspaper.

It’s been three or four months since I started the worm bin and I’ve just last week applied my first harvest of vermi-compost to a soil/vermiculite mixture for starting seeds indoors (the two 2 x 4′ fluorescent tube fixtures that I use also once belonged to Frank).  I am able to feed the worms about once a week without overdoing it.  Some people say they have preferences for certain types of foods, but I haven’t really noticed.  They seem to gobble up anything remotely palatable to you or I; the one addition I’ve made to the bin that they really didn’t seem to like and took forever to digest was plant trimmings from an aquarium.  Perhaps the leaves of aquatic plants are too fibrous… Perhaps the pieces were too large… They completely devoured an addition of leftover couscous in record time (I’m talking mere days), leading me to believe that the rate at which they can break down an addition of food scraps has everything to do with particle size.  It makes sense: the smaller the pieces, the greater the total surface area exposed to air, moisture, and bacteria, which, as I understand it, have to kind of pre-digest the food before worms can handle it.  Now, before adding anything to the bin, I use my big kitchen knife and practically mince it.  I’ve even read that some people use a food processor or blender to puree food scraps before giving them to their worms, thus maximizing surface area and minimizing the time it takes for worms to break it down.  I’ll try this if the food processor is already dirty the next time I intend to make an addition to the bin; otherwise, I don’t care to wash it.

If you look closely, you may be able to see the small white ones.

In my worm bin, I actually have two different types of worms.  There are Red Wigglers, which are kind of fat, pinkish-brown in color, and about two inches long at maturity; and, there are lots of skinny white worms no more than half an inch long.  At first, I thought the white ones were just baby Red Wigglers, but I did some research and found that this is a common misconception, that they are, in fact, two distinct types of worms.  One clue: I’ve never observed an intermediary whitish-pinkish teenage worm.  What I have observed is far more interesting and offers a clue to how the worm bin ecosystem works.  The large red worms do not flock to new additions of food; they seem concentrated in older, nearly-finished material.  Presumably, bacteria and whatever other unseen microbes are in there are the first to attack new additions, priming the pump, so to speak, for the larger decomposers to do their jobs.  Then, I observe large numbers of the small white worms starting to break down scraps that are still identifiable as human food.  For sure there is some overlap in their roles, but the large red worms don’t usually seem interested until the food is partially broken down.  So, their different dietary habits are another clue that they’re not the same species of worm.

The worms loved the couscous. I separate the nearly-finished compost towards the front of the bin.

To harvest the vermi-compost, it isn’t entirely necessary to separate the worms, but if you intend to use the finished compost in your garden outdoors, any worms that go out with it may not survive depending on the climate where you live.  It is my understanding that Red Wigglers are not native to the Vancouver area and cannot survive the coldish winters here.  Besides, it is desirable to keep as many worms in the worm bin so they can continue doing the work you’re paying them for.  Separating them is fairly simple.  When I start to see a lot of finished-looking compost around the bin, I just use my trowel to push it close to the front of the bin; any scraps that are still whole and need more time in the bin, I push towards the back, piling them up with the bedding and any new food I’m adding.  I drape the towel over the back of the bin only, leaving the front exposed to the light.  The next time I check on the worms, the nearly-completed compost at the front will be almost completely devoid worms, as most of them will have moved away from the light and towards the new food in the back.  There may still be a few of the larger, red worms still working on whatever remains to be eaten in the front, but for the most part, the worms will have separated themselves from the finished product.  I imagine, they’d move out completely given enough time, but having to pick a few out and toss them back when you go to harvest the finished compost is no big deal.  A another tell-tale observation that lets me know my bin is working as it should: there is absolutely no odor emanating from the bin.  By this I am truly shocked, because you’d expect a box of decomposing food waste to have a major stink about it, but it doesn’t (a stinky worm bin, like a stinky compost heap, would be an indication of anaerobic decomposition and should be remedied with adequate ventilation).  In fact, it has the pleasant, earthy aroma of a healthy ecosystem.

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A Belated Happy New Year to All!

January 11, 2012 at 5:56 pm (food, Gardening) (, , , , , )

A favorite Southern culinary tradition is the eating of collards and black-eyed peas for luck in the New Year.  We ate our Orca beans instead.  Yes, this was a New Year’s meal over six months in the making…  (We recently cooked up some pinto beans that we grew and dried two years ago.  Not surprisingly, the older beans took a lot longer to soften; despite soaking them overnight and simmering them on the stove for two hours, I still found a crunchy bean or two in my chili.)

Beautifully colored beans grown from West Coast Seeds seed.

These beans, simmered low and slow with pancetta and onions in Christmas turkey broth did us proud on New Year’s Day.  But, as creamy and delicious as they were, we don’t plan to grow them again next summer.  In no way did they disappoint; our concern is only for the limited garden space we have.

The Orca bean is a bush-type plant, as opposed to a pole bean.  Pole beans, or runner beans, are well-suited to a tight urban garden because they can be trellised and grown vertically, thereby saving ground space.  We ended up with a total of one and one half cups of dry Orca beans and their plants grew on a total of about ten square feet of garden.  Next year we’re going to try other pole beans besides Scarlett Runners and maybe save bush beans for a future when we have more ground space.

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Our Thanksgiving

December 5, 2011 at 5:21 am (food) (, , )

One of the best things about being American in Canada is having two Thanksgivings!  (I’ll admit, before moving here six years ago, I didn’t even know Canada had its own Thanksgiving Day.)  So, having gotten the taste for too much turkey and stuffing out of systems in early October, we decided to make a truly personal harvest celebration out of the American holiday.  Besides, my very unfussy in-laws were staying with us and it was nice to share with them the fruits of our labor.

The feature of this year’s big American Thanksgiving Day meal was spaghetti bolognese, made with our own oven-roasted heirloom tomato sauce and seasoned with dried and fresh herbs from the garden.  Just minutes before dinner, I picked a salad of crisp romaine and arugula (both of which are quite cold tolerant and still hanging in there despite a few mild frosts to date).  For dessert, a classic pumpkin pie, made from scratch using the Maw-Maw pumpkin that we grew.  I don’t know what variety it was; Maw-Maw gave me the seeds and said they’d grow a good eatin’ pumpkin–and they did!

That our Thanksgiving meal contained so many ingredients from our own garden made it feel like a true harvest celebration!  Oh, and, I gave thanks for my family, especially the newest member’s trouble-free beginning.

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Canning Experiments 2011

December 4, 2011 at 5:48 am (DIY, food, Gardening) (, , , )

Home preservation of food was beginning to look like a lost art… until the recent upsurge in homesteading and DIY skill sets.  I’m certainly not immune to the trend, but home canning also holds a uniquely fond place in my heart.  Ever since I can remember, my grandmother has grown and canned all her own tomatoes, green beans, and fruits for making jams (in addition to all the veggies for fresh eating and for freezing).  As a kid, I sometimes got to help her snap beans or shuck corn or mash strawberries.  What I didn’t know was that those were already foreign experiences to most of my peers (80’s kids).

When I grew up and moved to another state for university, I had to face life without Maw-Maw jelly for the first time.  Having tried store-bought, I gave up on PB&J’s for a long time because nothing quite compared.  I know the difference isn’t just that Maw-Maw picked her berries at their ripest and used only natural ingredients in her jams; it’s also the memory of picking and cooking with her and the very familiarity to me of her land.  Now, I’m continuing the tradition in my own home… and my family’s loving the results!

Last year (2010) I found a hot water bath canning set at The Salvation Army on 12th (I love their bargain basement!) and got started canning right away.  My first attempts at jam included a tart tayberry delight that spread beautifully over Sunday morning french toast and a thick blueberry-rhubarb jam we like to call “bluebarb.”  The rhubarb came from the front yard and the berries came from a U-Pick in Richmond, so not only was everything local and fresh, but we had a great time picking at the farm!  On our way back from the U-Pick, we stopped and bought about twenty pounds of dill cukes and I made so many jars of delightfully garlicky dill pickles that I’ve still got several quarts a year and a half later.  Also, I made a mango chutney when organic mangoes were cheap at the supermarket.  At least they were in season!

This year I’ve discovered that Canadian Tire sells everything you need for home-canning, so I finally picked up the accessories I had to do without last year–jar tongs (very helpful!), wide-mouth funnel, and a magnetic wand for lifting rings and lids out of hot hot water.  I attended a salsa-canning workshop this summer to learn more and ask some questions, like “Why did two of my jars bust when processing my tomatoes?”  Answer: imperfections in new glass, chips in old glass, cold contents were added to hot jars, hot contents were added to cold jars, jars touched while in the bath, or some combination of these factors.  The class was very informal, hosted by a foodie neighbor and really just a great time gabbing with some friendly ladies.  I left with a recipe for canning peaches that sounds amazing; I can’t wait to try it next year!

This year, despite being hugely pregnant then having a newborn strapped to my chest five or six hours a day, I managed to prep and process the following:

  • 8 1/2 pint jars tayberry jam (U-pick berries)
  • 8 1/2 pint jars bluebarb jam (U-pick berries and garden rhubarb)
  • 7 pints peaches in light syrup (Farmer’s Market peaches)
  • 4 1/2 pint jars grape jelly (our neighbors have a grape vine)
  • 4 1/2 pint jars plum preserves (plum trees in our backyard)
  • 5 jars of various sizes diced German Red Strawberries (our favorite heirloom tomato)
  • 3 quart jars oven-roasted tomato sauce (from homegrown German Red Strawberries)
  • 10 pints applesauce (from fruit scavenged along 17th Ave. at Clark Dr.)
  • 5 1/2 pint jars roasted green tomato salsa (the last tomatoes from our garden)

Wow!  Looking at that list, I’m rather impressed with my efforts this year.  Of course, nothing quite compares to the sense of satisfaction seeing those colorful jars lined up on my kitchen shelves.  And, every time I open a new jar of jam or cook with my home-canned tomato sauce, I’m pleasantly reminded of Vancouver’s gorgeous but too-short summer.

For pictures of this year’s canning successes (and one failure), click here.

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How time flies…

November 7, 2009 at 7:29 pm (environment, food, Gardening, permaculture) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Is it really November already?  Seems like just last week the tomato vines were laden with heavy ripe fruit and we were eating garden-fresh salads daily… oh, and it wasn’t raining every dang day!

Yes, November is one of the wettest months in Vancouver, so when the sun is out we have to make good use of it.  Already this month I’ve dug up two patches of the front lawn for new veggie garden beds.  One, the garlic bed, is about 15′ x 2′ and it’s up against the hedge row on the east side of the house where it will get good sun for much of the morning and mid-day hours.  After two beautifully sunny days of working on this project–removing all that grass, and digging in 3 very full 5-gallon buckets of compost into the top 10-12″ of soil–Day 3 saw rain, rain, and more rain.  Nevertheless, I trudged out to the yard in full rain gear to plant 54 of the largest cloves of garlic I could get my hands on.  I finished off with a layer several inches thick of decaying leaves collected from my own yard, my neighbor’s yard, and even the street.  About the garlic, some 20 cloves are a hardneck type called Music that I purchased from one of my favorite Farmer’s Market vendors–Brian from Sheffield Farm.  The rest are supermarket garlic–smaller, less pungent, but guaranteed to be organically-raised and as local as you can get.  I know, I know, 54 heads of garlic sounds like a lot, and maybe it is, but I’d rather have too much than too little.  It’s fun to share!

Besides, I was inspired to try growing enough for a whole year when I recently attended a workshop on the long-term storage of raw foods like squash, pumpkins, onions, garlic, potatoes, tubers and root vegetables.  The class focused on how to cure veggies for storage and how to decide where to store them so that they receive appropriate amounts of moisture, warmth, light or dark–just as you decide where to plant what in the outdoor garden based on the “micro-climate” of a given spot (how much sun it gets, how well-drained the soil is, or whether the spot is warm and protected from wind due to a nearby wall, for instance).  The workshop, taught by Robin Wheeler (whose book Food Security For the Faint of Heart I devoured in a matter of days and ultimately got her to autograph!) was a nice complement to my recent interest in other types of food preservation such as canning and drying.  This summer saw my first rough attempts at hot water bath canning.  I did some whole, peeled tomatoes, tomato sauce, applesauce (from some beautiful Ambrosia and Gala apples obtained at the Farmer’s Market), huckleberry jam (a failure due to bad recipe calling for waaaaay too much sugar), blueberry-rhubarb jam (a winner), and spicy dill pickles.  I love the look of all those colorful jars up on the kitchen shelf and the feeling, not just of security and comfort knowing it’s all there waiting to be eaten, but of satisfaction and pride in having put it all by, all by myself:)

Oh yes, back to the garden work I’ve been up to… The other new bed that I created in the front yard is a large round area tucked up against the west side of the porch stairs, a perfect spot, some would say, for some lovely ornamentals and perhaps a colorful flower border.  But not me!  I transplanted my rhubarb crowns there and look forward to seeing their bright red stems and broad green leaves displayed next to the lilac bushes, tucked in with the perennials as if they belong there–and they do!

Since I’m renting, I’ve inherited a yard that is well-planted, but somewhat over-landscaped (for my tastes and purposes) in bushes, bulbs, and ornamentals.  My plan is not to commit to any major earth-works and not to invest too much time and effort in tearing stuff up and starting over, but to work with what I have, even if it means that I end up mixing veggie plants and berry bushes into the established perennial borders.  In fact, maybe the result will be all the better for being nice-looking as well as edible.  Edible landscapes are a recent phenomenon, you know… As an aside, I picked up a circa-1970’s gardening book from a thrift store over the summer and I was amazed (in a horrified kind of way) and kind of saddened to see the vegetable gardens all tucked away in hidden, unused corners where they do not detract from the look of the landscaped yard.  Interesting how times have changed…

Other stuff that’s changed since last I wrote–I know, I know, I’ve been really bad about updating this blog lately…  Well, I completed my yoga teacher training program at the end of June and taught two classes over the summer.  The first was nerve-wracking; the second went so smoothly and the response from my students was so positive, it was a major confidence booster.  I came out of that class feeling like I had really achieved something and had really made a major transformation from the beginning of the training program to the end.  I still don’t know if I want to pursue being a yoga teacher as a profession; that was never really my intention in deciding to enter the program.  I wanted to challenge myself to do it for the deeper understanding of yoga philosophy and physiology, as well as to push myself into a deeper commitment to my own yoga practice.  Unfortunately, summer visits, trips and the lack of free time due to no more Happy Hands for Eleanor have all conspired against my sustaining a regular yoga practice and, because I feel out of practice myself, I do not feel like I’m in a position to teach.  However, I’m trying to get back into a regular practice and I have noticed in the brochure of classes offered in the new community center that there’s no one teaching a mom-and-tot yoga class or a class for moms with child-minding available (it was for want of these types of programs when Eleanor was a toddler that I first got it into my head that I could become a teacher and offer them myself), so we’ll see what the following year holds…

Deciding to do the yoga teacher training program in December of last year also held out the hope of possibly being employable if Stephen’s job ended up taking us to Switzerland, where his boss was and presumably still is trying to start up an office.  Well, I don’t know if you all have noticed, but the economy hasn’t been that great lately and financial services companies have been especially hard hit.  Stephen’s employers are apparently doing just fine, but certain things like opening offices in Switzerland have taken the back burner for now.  That’s okay, though.  Stephen has decided that he wants to go back to UBC and complete his PhD.  He can continue working for his current employer nearly full-time and incorporate his work-work into the work he’ll be doing for the PhD so he can continue to be paid as he currently is and we can consider ourselves settled for the foreseeable future–which is a good thing for me since I just went to all the trouble of digging up two new garden beds and I’m sprouting asparagus from seed this winter and I won’t be able to harvest it for at least two years!

Here’s a thought…  Renters are hesitant to do much in-ground gardening and they certainly don’t bother to plant things like berry bushes and apple trees that take years to produce their first crop, mainly because they regard their adobes as temporary shelter, they know it’s only a matter of time before they move on and they don’t want to make long-term investments of which they’ll never reap the benefits.  Imagine, though, if every renter who felt that way went ahead and planted those long-yielding perennials anyway.  Then, every time they move, they wouldn’t have to mourn the loss of those raspberry canes or that strawberry patch, because they’d have fresh blueberries, and an established, productive asparagus patch to look forward to.  It would take a change of attitude on the part of renters everywhere: namely, to stop thinking of their gardens in terms of what it produces for them, or how much money it saves them, or that it’s even “their” garden.  A garden does not serve the gardener.  A garden is self-creative and self-renewing; planting one and cultivating it is a service to the earth and to one’s community.  Renters should go ahead and plant anything and everything that strikes their fancy, knowing that they’ve done their small part to heal a little piece of earth (and more, the more they frequently they move) and that one day down the road many, many people will enjoy the benefits of their labor, as as they themselves will go on to enjoy the benefits of someone else’s labor at their new place… Just a thought…

In other news, Eleanor’s doing great.  She’s as smart as a whip and very clever, too.  She’s got a real sense of humor these days and, though she doesn’t shy away from poot jokes, she’s also very mature for her age.  She’s in a combined three- and four-year-old preschool class for two hours two days a week.  Her favorite thing to do at preschool is dress up in the beautiful dress-up clothes.  She’s a real girly-girl.  She was also doing ballet and gymnastics once a week and a program called Happy Hands, which is just like preschool, all at the community center.  The center has been slated to move into a new location for a long, long time and the time had finally come… or so we thought.  The old center closed and took reservations already for classes at the new center, but they’ve just informed us that construction delays at the new center have held up the move once again, so everything is canceled for the rest of the year.  Boo hoo…  That community center was like a second home for me when Eleanor was young and we were new to Vancouver and to parenthood.  I started taking her there when she was just a baby; I met a lot of my neighbors and other moms there; Eleanor’s practically grown up at the tot gym there… and now it’s all over… and we’re stuck waiting around for the new center to open.  The new center will be very nice and I like that it has a library in it and it will be easier to get to from our new house.  In the meantime, Eleanor and I have been forced to find other things to do on the days that she doesn’t have preschool.  We’re discovering free drop-in playgroups and strong start learning centers all over the place.  Vancouver’s publicly-funded services for families cannot be beat!

Well, there’s a lot more I could write about.  Seeing as I haven’t blogged in well over half a year, I have a lot of catching up to do.  Knowing myself, I won’t make promises to be back often and fill in all the details of the summer months or recent projects taken up around here, but I’ll do my best.  Even if I never get into the habit of blogging about everything that goes on in my life, I would like to share more of my thoughts and philosophical ideas about the world and what in it is important to me–my family, community, good food, the environment, my garden, sustainability, politics… I could go on and on and on…

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Vegan Summer Squash Bread Perfection!

August 28, 2008 at 5:35 pm (food) (, , , , , , , , , , )

This always happens when I go to the farmer’s market… I have two or three things in mind that I need to get, but I end up buying fresh, local produce until either my backpack is full or my wallet is empty.  So, this week I ended up with some delicious yellow summer squash that I needed to use up.  I thought, if carrot cake is classic and zucchini bread is divine, why not give squash bread a go?  And why not make it vegan while I’m at it?  Here’s what I came up with:

Delicious Vegan Squash Muffins

(Due to the amount of squash I had on hand, I made enough batter for six muffins and one large loaf, but the recipe can easily be halved for a single medium-sized loaf, in which case you’d just want to bake it at 350 deg. for 55-60 minutes.)

Dry ingredients:

  • 3 c. all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp. salt

Wet Ingredients:

  • 2 c. coarsely grated summer squash
  • 2 c. raw cane sugar
  • 1/4 c. canola oil
  • 1/4 c. olive oil
  • 2 tbsp. honey
  • 1 over-ripe banana, mashed
  • 1 carrot, finely grated
  • zest of 1 lime


Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Mix dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl, make a well in the center, and set aside.  Mix wet ingredients in a separate large mixing bowl.  Add wet mixture to dry mixture all at once and stir just until moistened.  If desired, fold in 1 cup chopped pecans.  Fill six paper-lined muffin tins level with top of pan.  Pour remaining batter into a greased 8x4x2 loaf pan.  Bake loaf and muffins for 25-30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted near the center of a muffin comes out clean.  After removing muffins, lower oven temp. to 350 deg. and bake loaf for another 25-30 minutes, or until toothpick comes out clean.  Let cool for 10 min. in pan on a rack, then remove from pan to cool completely.  Now, sit back and enjoy Vegan Summer Squash Bread Perfection!

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Organic vs. Local

October 24, 2007 at 5:25 pm (environment, food, Other, permaculture) (, , , , )

You’ve probably heard of the “100-mile diet.” It seems it’s on everyone’s lips lately–at least everyone in the high-end natural foods stores in which I work. I frequently do demos in the local Capers markets (I also shop there for some things since there’s one so close to my house) and I’ve noticed that they do a great job of clearly marking which products are locally grown or locally produced. They know that their shoppers want to support local growers and the local economy.

For many people around here, it seems buying local is a social thing and they never stop to think that they’re also doing something good for the environment. They buy Canadian- rather than American-made products to keep Canada strong economically, and therefore, politically. They prefer something made in British Columbia over something made in Ontario, Quebec, the Maritimes, or the Prairie Provinces because, in order, nobody likes Toronto, the Quebecois don’t like Canada, nothing comes out of the Maritimes but people, and the people of the plains are way too conservative for the likes of Canada’s “left coast.” None of this comes close to the real reason, the best reason, my reason for buying local: the environment!

For years, health and environment experts have been touting the benefits of eating organically-grown foods. For those who said organics were too costly, they came up with the “dirty dozen” list (I still have my copy mom and I do use it!), which named the top twelve pesticide-and insecticide-laden fruits and vegetables so that we could at least be buying these organic even if we had to buy conventional in other areas to cut our overall spending on groceries. I suppose if your number one priority is your own health and you buy organic for the sole purpose of keeping mysterious chemicals out of your bloodstream, then you’d be doing well to find a grocery store that stocks the widest variety of organics, regardless of how far those foods travel. On the other hand, maybe your concerns are not so much for your own health, but for the well-being of the planet. Environmentalists prefer buying organically-grown foods because their production doesn’t entail the use of deadly chemicals that end up in groundwater, their producers use more sensible shading, irrigating, and composting techniques, and because they generally are grown on smaller farms that have more respect for biodiversity (i.e. because they’re better for the environment).

If given a choice between an apple grown on a small family-run orchard that practices organic, sustainable farming methods and an apple grown on a large industrial farm that has maximum-output-for-maximum-profit as its modus operandi, the environmentalist and the health-nut would probably both go for the first apple. Surely, its production was easier on the earth and it probably has more flavor and nutritional value even if it doesn’t have the blemish-free waxy exterior of the second apple. It would be my choice, too. But, what if the organic, family farm is in New Zealand and the industrial farm is located just 10 miles outside your hometown? Then which apple is better for the earth?  The way I see it, there’s just no point in supporting organic agriculture if it requires polluting 5,000 miles of ocean to get the food to market.  Of course, if you absolutely can’t survive the winter without tropical fruits and polluting the ocean is the only way to get them to North America, then please do go for the organic ones.

“Food Miles” is a term I’ve heard a lot lately, having recently immersed myself in the local-food movement through my new job; it refers to the distance that a given piece of food travels from field to plate. Processed foods rack up food miles faster than fresh produce because you have to take into account the distances traveled by each ingredient and the fact that such foods are rarely grown, processed, packaged, sorted, and sold all in one geographical region. For example, cranberries are locally in-season right before Thanksgiving and are commonly packaged and sold under the Ocean Spray name. If you buy them directly from a local farmer at a farmer’s market, you’ll spend a little more money, but you’ve saved the earth all the fuel and emissions that are spent transporting locally-grown cranberries to a processing plant on the east coast for cleaning, sorting, and packaging and then shipping those same cranberries in pretty blue and white be-waved bags back to their birthplace. I recently read that the average North American meal travels 1500 miles before it reaches our tables. Isn’t it sad that our food gets to see more of the world than we do?!

Ideally, we could always get organic, locally-grown foods, but that’s just not the case. It wouldn’t be natural if we could. Having come to the realization that a globalized food (or any other commodity for that matter) production system is having an adverse effect on the environment, I’ve resorted to buying local over organic if I can’t get both. Ultimately, though, if we want more local food, we have to get used to a limited variety of offerings, as we have to buy within the bounds of the natural growing season.

Alternatively, and this seems to be pretty popular around here, there’s always the option of growing your own fruits and vegetables in a backyard garden–that way your food miles are zero–and eating less processed and pre-packaged foods. This year, I grew swiss chard in my backyard. I attempted broccoli, but it didn’t do anything. With fond memories of helping in my grandmother’s garden, I will attempt to diversify next summer’s garden. I want fresh herbs and salad greens. Some tomatoes would be nice… mmm…

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