November 13, 2009

Magical Mushrooms

A few photos from a recent walk through the park near our house.

My husband thinks these two look like they're sharing an intimate moment.

If the other two were a couple, this is definitely a mother and child.

I need to get my hands on a good mushroom book so I can go hunting for edibles (pretty sure none of these qualify).  Edible or not, they're still gorgeous, and I'm always excited to spot some huddled together on the damp forest floor.

October 19, 2009

A Good Egg

Here it is, the thing I have dreamed of for so many years - a fresh, homegrown egg from my own hens!!

The layer of this beauty remains a mystery, but I have my suspicions.  It was just laying there in the middle of the coop floor when I went in to clean their waterer yesterday afternoon (thankfully the shell was really hard, so it hadn't gotten broken from them walking all over it).  We've been trying not to get our hopes up about getting eggs any time soon, as we had just spoken to a friend whose hens took almost 8 months to start laying, so of course we didn't have a nest box built yet, but my clever hubby managed to get that sorted out last night.

After waiting several hours for my daughter to return home from a friend's house (torture!), we fried that baby up.  It was the best egg I've ever tasted, but, as my husband pointed out, it better be good for the $300 or so dollars it cost us.

Can't wait to see what they leave for us this morning!

October 09, 2009

A Month's Worth of Posts In One

It's been a busy month, as we've been rushing around trying to get several things done before the weather turns cold and wet.  We spent so much of the summer working on the chicken coop that now we're rushing to catch up on other stuff that "had to" be done before fall.  On that list was resealing the decks, staining the board and batten cedar on the basement's exterior, painting the windows, finishing the deer fence (so that we can plant out more trees/shrubs), and getting perennial beds and grass started on the front side of the house.  We managed to get some of those things checked off our list, and some are still being dealt with.  A week of dealing with a nasty flu bug didn't help matters.
Here are a few other highlights:

In the garden, it was the year of the mini's:

Wee watermelon...

...and bonsai corn.
They may have been tiny, but they were delicious!

I was really pleased with the Rosa Bianco eggplants.  They produced quite well, and the pale flesh looks really nice grilled (it even has a cute ruffled edge when cut into rounds).

We used some of the pallets that came with various building materials to make a woodshed, which we filled with trees that were either bent or broken by last year's record snowfall.

My mom and step-dad went to the Okanagan (the province's hot spot) for a holiday several weeks ago, and came back with 75 pounds of organic tomatoes, and 40 pounds of apples (the tomatoes I canned, and the apples are in cold storage).  With the difference in price between buying them there and buying them here on the coast, I think it might be worth taking a trip up there to stock up every fall.

The girls are doing well, but no eggs yet.  They're 18 weeks today though, so it shouldn't be long!

And here's the latest addition to our menagerie..."Lucky" the bunny.  My husband's coworker moved into a new apartment and was unable to keep her, so rather than see her sent to the SPCA, we agreed to give her a home (yes, that would be a "sucker" sign on my back).  She's exceptionally cute, and is already doing her part to fertilize our garden.  Did I mention that you don't have to compost rabbit poop before using it in the garden?  Yes, I was swayed by the poop - how sad.

This weekend is Thanksgiving for those of us in Canada, and I am thankful for all of the things I just mentioned, and then some.  I wish you a weekend filled with things that you are grateful for, even if you're not going to spend it eating yourself silly.

Happy Thanksgiving!

September 11, 2009

The Scoop on the Coop

Well, we have finally finished the coop enough that I decided it was time to tell you a bit about our summer project.

We're pretty pleased with how it turned out, considering that it's made almost entirely out of leftovers from our house.  The only things that we had to buy were a few extra roofing shingles, a couple of sheets of plywood for the roof, a gallon of exterior paint, and wire mesh for the run.

Still a few things left to do, but mostly done.

The work involved was a little more than we anticipated (and most of it through record summer temperatures), but since almost every room in the house looks out on to the coop, we wanted it to be something that we enjoyed looking at.

While we didn't have any actual building plans, we had a pretty good idea of what we wanted it to look like.  Using Google Sketchup, we played with things like the wall height, roof pitch, and window/door placement until we ended up with something that we were happy with.

My husband hadn't done a lot of framing before, but he did an amazing job of turning our ideas into an actual structure.

Some of the features that we planned for are:
  • we placed the coop in the sunniest part of the yard so that the run will have a chance to dry out in between winter rain storms.
  • passive solar heating - the coop is oriented exactly east/west, so the overhang shades the windows on the south side during the hottest part of the summer, but lets the light in when the sun is lower in the sky during the fall and winter months to help keep the chickies warm (also, because of this positioning, the coop itself creates a nice shady patch in the adjoining run).
  • the coop and run are directly in front of the vegetable garden, with an extra door into the back of the coop so that all of that precious chicken manure can be scooped out right where we need it.
  • there's an additional pop door on the south side where we will eventually dock a chicken tractor (next year's project)
  • we wired for overhead and exterior lights, as well as an outlet for either a fan or heat lamp, depending on the season.
  • we're going to install gutters which will lead to rain barrels on the back side of the coop in order to reduce our dependence on well water for irrigation.
  • we allowed for lots of natural ventilation.  There's a ridge vent in the roof, as well as soffit and gable vents, which will eventually have small doors so we can close them up during cold snaps.
Insulation and back door into the garden.

As mentioned, we used almost entirely recycled materials, many of which were given to us.  My mom and stepfather are renovating their house (which was built in 1909) to turn it into a B&B, so we were able to take a lot of things that would have otherwise gone to the dump, including the insulation in the photo above.  We insulated the ceiling using rock wool and styrofoam sheets that were left over from insulating our basement slab.

The interior walls are covered with shiplap that was torn up from the floors and walls of my mom's house (beautiful one foot wide, 100 year old fir boards).  They will eventually get a coat of paint to make them easier to clean, but right now they are a weathered grey, which gives the coop a rustic, barnlike feel.

The exterior is covered with fiber cement lap siding, which we painted to match the house.  I built the ramps out of cedar decking cut-offs.

This is the day that we let the girls out into the run for the first time.  They were pretty sure that we were up to no good...

My favorite Speckled Sussex was the first one out of the coop.

...but it wasn't long before they were outside and charging around the run.

I'm still amazed at the instincts possessed by these domesticated birds.  They kept a constant watch on the sky, and would run inside at the first sign of an aerial attack (it was usually just an airplane - our property is on a flight path).

You can see in the above photo that the bottom of the coop is enclosed with 1/2" wire mesh, which was given to us by our neighbor.  It's a much heavier gauge than hardware cloth, and will hopefully keep anything from digging under and making a home under the coop.

Pippin - our beautiful Dark Brahma

The run is about 5 1/2 feet tall, so the kids and I can stand in there comfortably.  The top four feet are covered with 2" square wire mesh, and the bottom 18" with 3/4" hardware cloth.  The hardware cloth is actually 3 feet wide, but we buried the bottom 18" underground to prevent anything from digging under the fence.  While we don't have many of the usual predators here (not even raccoons or skunks), with the public trail running past our property, there is some concern about dogs.  

Of a bigger concern are attacks from the sky, so I used the deer fence that didn't work so well on the veggie garden to cover the run and keep out winged predators.

This second gate from the garden into the run will make it easier for me to bring them garden scraps.  We also want to be able to let them into the garden from time to time for a change of scenery and to help clean things up at the end of the growing season.

I fashioned their roosts out of cedar decking and 1 x 4 cedar trim (which had been pre-stained).  I sealed the cedar with the same non-toxic linseed oil product that we used on our butcher block countertops.

The east facing window provides them with a sunny spot to bask and preen in during the early morning hours...

...and I built a perch under it so that they can take in the view during the day.  It's easy to tell who is at the top of the pecking order by observing who gets to sleep here at night - it's clearly their favorite spot. 
I'm in a rush to build some nest boxes, as their faces are starting to turn red, which I understand is a sign that they're getting ready to lay.  I'm thinking about building a "community" box as opposed to individual nests, as I keep hearing that they will all use the same one anyway.  Any thoughts on this from those of you with chickens?  My girls are a cuddly bunch, so I can't see it being a problem.  

After all of that hard work, I think my favorite part of the coop project is the stepping stone that my daughter made to go in front of it.   It makes me smile whenever I see it.

Now if only they would start laying!

September 06, 2009

Sour Puss

Ours is a family that loves big flavors.  Salty, bitter, spicy, sour - you name it, we love it.  Even the kids adore things like garlic, dijon mustard, kalamata olives, and tonic water, which is a dream for me, 'cause there's no way I'd enjoy cooking nothing but plain pasta or white bread sandwiches.

One of our very favorite things is sauerkraut.  A hot dog or reuben sandwich (veggie or otherwise) just isn't the same without it. I remember my grandmother making sauerkraut when I was a kid, but it's something that I've never been brave enough to try my hand at. The benefit of making your own kraut is that it can be left unpasteurised so that it will retain the healthy probiotic bacteria (similar to those found in yogurt) that are responsible for the fermentation process.

Until now, the thought of overseeing a crock of fermenting cabbage for several weeks has always seemed a bit daunting, but this year I decided to throw caution to the wind and go for it.

I sliced up the heads of cabbage (one green, one purple so that I'd end up with pink sauerkraut) using my mandoline to ensure uniform thickness, and stirred it together with some sea salt (the cabbage didn't end up releasing enough juice on its own, so I had to make some extra brine to cover it).  This is a very small batch, as I only used 2 1/2 pounds of cabbage instead of the 50 that the recipe called for, but I thought it best to start small.

I covered the cabbage with a layer of cheese cloth, tucking in the ends, and put a plate on top to keep the cabbage submerged.  It's supposed to sit like this for several weeks, and the house already smells of fermenting cabbage, but I'm hopeful that we'll end up with something delicious.  More to come...

Another treat with pucker power is the oh so lovely dill pickle.  I made ten quart jars last week using my favorite recipe, and I can't wait until they're ready to eat.

Cukes chillin'.

Since we all love pickles on our burgers but don't always like to take the time to slice them, I was thrilled when I came across Dill Pickle Relish in a store last year.  Thinking that was the smartest thing I'd heard of in a long time, I went on the hunt for a similar recipe.  Canadian Living magazine is well known for its excellent recipes and cookbooks, so when I found a recipe for this relish on their site, I was pretty sure that it would fit the bill.

The resulting relish is a pretty close approximation to chopped pickles, but I'll probably tinker with it a bit the next time I make it (omitting the sugar and upping the amount of garlic to make it more like Kosher dills).  In the meantime I'm sure it will be a nice addition to our winter meals.

Our weather has turned in the last day or two and it's suddenly feeling very much like autumn.  The chickies have had their first taste of west coast weather and I'm not sure they're fans. They were so stunned by the sudden deluge that we had this morning that they just stood there looking confused and pathetic.  After about 5 minutes of waiting for them to run inside, my daughter finally took pity on them and pushed them in through the pop-doors one by one (I guess they hadn't yet realized that it wouldn't be raining inside the coop as well).  They've since figured it out, but they actually seem to be enjoying the light drizzle right now.

As for me, I'm sitting beside the first fire of the season, and enjoying a warm cup of chai.

Labor day indeed - ha!

September 02, 2009

What We're Harvesting Right Now

Aside from complaining about four-legged invaders, I haven't really spoken much about the garden this summer so I thought I'd do a brief update.

Our soil is still really awful, so things still aren't doing as well as I would like.  One of our friends described the soil here as "rock flour", and that's exactly what it is (a result of glacier movement over this area during the ice age).  It's extremely fine, but it doesn't clump together like clay, so when you first dig it, it looks deceivingly rich and light, but a few days without rain and it reverts to its powdery form and blows away in the wind.  It drains well enough, but there's almost no organic material in it, so whatever water it absorbs, it doesn't hold on to for very long.  We amended it as much as we could this spring with horse manure, coconut husks, and compost, but it wasn't nearly enough.  I'm madly composting piles of veggie scraps with chicken litter and seaweed that I've collected on the beach, so next year it will get another much-needed boost.

We had the hottest summer on record this year (Vancouver broke its all-time heat record one day [33.8 C]  and then broke that record again the next day [34.4 C]).  We got to 39 degrees celcius (102 F) in the shade here at our place, which is unheard of on the coast (we're higher up and farther from the water than much of the surrounding area, so we tend to get hotter summers and colder winters).  We've also gotten less rainfall since April than ever before - our usually rainy spring was eerily dry.  These extremes hindered many of the plants in the garden, but at least the eggplants are happy:

My favorite Dusky eggplants do well even during a cool summer, so they're going gangbusters with the heat.  I picked the above two on the weekend, and there are 8 more on the the two plants outside.  It's time to grill some eggplant.

The Rosa Bianca eggplants are arriving slightly later, but are also producing like crazy:

The Gold Rush and Romanesco zucchinis are producing well, but not so much that we're getting sick of them.

Bags of whole basil are being frozen for winter use.  I used to turn much of my basil into pesto, but now I prefer to freeze it to use as I would fresh basil.  It tastes as fresh in March as it did in August.

The tomatoes aren't doing very well, but I am getting a few a week.  This is my first year growing the Nebraska Wedding variety, and they seem to be happy.  I'm looking forward to getting my first taste of these orange beauties.

Our peach tree surprised us with over two dozen delicious fruits, even though we moved it from my mom's garden to our own after it had already started blooming this spring.

I had to smile this morning when I went to the garden and saw this fresh pile of deer droppings...on the outside of the garden fence.

The deer aren't taking it lying down, however.  One of the gutsy little suckers actually came up on to the deck the other night and ate the plants that I was saving to plant around the chicken coop.  This involved making the trek up the steps and walking 20 or so feet across the deck to where the plants were sitting - all this while we were sitting in the adjacent living room with the lights on!  We heard a bump at the time, but thought it was the cat.

I hate being outsmarted by things that don't even have opposable thumbs.

August 30, 2009

The Must Make Jam of Summer

If you're a fan of peach and raspberry jams, then you've got to give this recipe a try.  It's the perfect blend of the two flavors, which go together unbelievably well, and the color of the resulting jam is amazing.

I made this for the first time a few years ago, and my kids loved it so much that they dubbed it "Mommy's Special Jam".  It's especially good on freshly made crepes (one of our favorite desserts for those times when we're craving something but have nothing in the house).

Its real name is Peach Melba Jam, and you can find the recipe here.

Not being one to leave things be, I did change the recipe slightly.  I actually like the added texture of raspberry seeds in jam, so rather than running the pulp through a sieve to remove them, I left them in.  To make up the extra pulp that the seeds would be displacing, I added an extra 1/4 cup or so of raspberries (this has the added benefit of making a slightly softer jam, which I like).  I got 8 jars out of the batch instead of 7.

I'd love to hear what you think if you try it!

August 25, 2009

Deer, oh dear.

One thing I didn't have to contend with in my city garden was four footed garden pests. As long as the dog didn't get in and run roughshod over my plants, the only things I really had to worry about were slugs and aphids. Not so here in deer central.

We've been pretty lucky that our property doesn't seem to be on their main route. For most of the year, it's rare to see a deer in this neck of the woods, even though people across the street (on the lake front) seem to have them year round. Last year I left all of my plants unprotected for several months and they weren't even touched. Come July and August though, it was a different story. The pickings must get fairly slim at this time of year, because they suddenly start showing up in droves.

As annoying as it is to lose flowers and other ornamentals (they seem to particularly love anything labelled as deer proof), I've been tolerant of them and their nibbling because I understand their need to eat, and most of those things will recover eventually. Even so, I researched homemade deer repellents and started spraying my hostas and other tasty plants with the concoction. It really seems to work, as I recently had a new, unsprayed hosta sitting in a pot beside the sprayed ones in my garden, and it got eaten while the others were completely untouched.

Deer Repellent (this is a combination of a few recipes that I saw online):
Put a litre (quart) of water into a blender and add
  • 1 egg
  • 1 TBSP baking powder
  • 1 large clove garlic
Blend until smooth, strain, and pour into a spray bottle. Spritz anything that the deer seem to like. Refrigerate any extra for a later application. This should remain effective for at least two weeks, unless there's a lot of rain.

We are in the process of installing a more permanent solution (deer fencing), but we recently had a breach that left me fuming and contemplating filling my freezer with venison.

When we first put in our garden, I bought 200 feet of fence from Benner's, which worked really well. This stuff is incredibly strong, and even works to keep the dogs out. The only problem is, it's also quite expensive, especially when you've got well over 1000 feet of fence line to protect. So I was understandably thrilled to discover that Lee Valley had deer fencing for $20 per 100 feet. It's very thin and lightweight (like the netting that you put over fruit trees to protect your harvest from birds), but the packaging assured me that the deer wouldn't go through it as long as they knew it was there. The only problem is, it catches on absolutely everything, so I was worried about birds getting entangled in it (I'd already cut a robin out of our badminton net this summer and didn't want a repeat), and the dogs plowing right through it in their galumphing. So we decided to move the heavier fencing from around the front of the garden to the perimeter of the yard, and put the flimsy stuff in its place around the veggie patch as a temporary measure (we'll eventually build a lower, sturdier fence to keep the dogs out). But, with all the work on the chicken coop, we still haven't managed to finish fencing the perimeter of the yard, so we'd been relying on the flimsy stuff to protect the garden. You know where this is going, don't you?

A few days ago, I was out in the garden and noticed footprints through my freshly planted bed of winter crops. I was slightly annoyed thinking that the dogs had somehow gotten in, but then I saw that the apple tree was looking less bushy, and the strawberry plants were bald. It was then that I noticed a section of fencing laying on the ground. Thinking that it had somehow gotten knocked down during the previous night's wind storm, we put it back in place and thought nothing of it.

That is, until I woke up the next morning and saw the fence laying on the ground again, with one apple tree leaning on a funny angle (and half of the apple harvest laying on the ground), and the other apple tree looking like this:

The main central branch is snapped off at its base.

Then I saw the cherry tree:

My winter broccoli crop is also a goner:

And the lovely pepper plant which is loaded with peppers is now missing it's top.

They also chewed my winter cabbages, ate the leaves off both grape vines, and decapitated the heritage bean plants that I was growing solely for seed for next years crop. An entire summer's worth of babying these plants and they're gone in 24 hours - grrrr!

To add insult to injury, they came back twice that day. My neighbor had to chase them out in the afternoon while we were out (and even fixed the fence for me - have I mentioned our wonderful neighbors?), only to have them return again a few hours later. It seems that once they figured out that they could pull down the fencing, there was no stopping them.

Needless to say, the Benner's fence is back around the garden, and there's a rush on to finish fencing the yard.

And the deer are damn lucky that my freezer is full of frozen berries...

August 19, 2009

My Summer So Far

It almost seems unnecessary to explain my absence anymore - it's pretty much a given that there will be a good month or more between posts these days. Here's a brief update.

We've been busy working on "outside" things while the weather is good, namely the chicken coop.

The coop during the framing stage.

There's a lot to tell you about this little project, but I'll save it for the big reveal post (which will be soon - we're almost done!).

Bella (named for Bellatrix, our favorite Harry Potter "baddie").

The chickens are growing like weeds, and they're loving their new coop. I didn't want to move them in while we were still working on it because I thought the noise would be too much, but I couldn't handle having them in the basement anymore - they were starting to free range! They tolerate the sounds of construction better than I thought they would though, and as my neighbor joked, their only complaint about the new coop is that they no longer have cable TV.

The garden is doing fairly well, with some things faring better than others (isn't that always the case?). This is the first tomato of the season, a Cherokee Purple that I harvested a few weeks ago. We've also had a few Speckled Romans, and there are a lot more out there that are getting close.

Bonsai garlic of 2009.

The garlic was one of our major failures, with the lack of rain and fertile soil leaving them rather stunted. Considering that they started out as volunteers from last year's neglected crop, I can't really complain. My daughter is thinking about turning the tiny bulbs into earrings and wearing them as Edward Cullen repellent (unlike most girls her age, she's not a big fan of the Twilight books).

Last month we had a major thunder storm pass through the area - the sky was the most amazing golden colour right before it started. We sat with the lights off and watched the fork lightening dance across the sky all evening. The only one of us who wasn't impressed was poor Princess, who stayed under the bed for hours after it ended.

Today we're heading to the beach, to squeeze the last bit of summer out of the remaining days of August.

I hope you're having a great summer too!


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