September 12, 2010

Rainforest Flowers and Book Winner

Thanks to everyone who left a comment on the Hothouse Flowers review post. After using a random number generator to select a winner, the book goes to Jennywenny of Foray into Food. Jenny, if you can forward your mailing info to me at, I will pass it along to the people at TLC Book Tours, and a copy will be mailed out to you shortly.

Since we're talking flowers, I thought I'd share a few photos of flowers from our garden this year. Many of our newer flower beds struggled because the soil was freshly broken and hadn't yet been amended enough to ensure vigorous growth, but the beds that I created last year did much better.

The liatris and shasta daisies multiplied considerably since last year and put on a good show this summer. The wildflower bed in the background (Pacific Northwest Wildflower blend from Westcoast Seeds) is a gorgeous mix of annuals and perennials and blooms continuously from early spring until fall.

These Valentine sunflowers are thriving thanks to the excess nitrogen in the soil next to the chicken run. Situated on the south side of the run, they created a nice shady patch for the chickens during the heat of summer, and are now feeding the family of Stellar's Jays that live on our property.

We've been letting the chickens have the run of the yard occasionally (while we keep a watchful eye out for eagles and bears, of course). This is Ruby, our beautiful (and very broody) Buff Orpington, chasing crickets on the lawn above our septic.

And here's a final parting shot of the wildflower patch, which is looking pretty sad after this weekend's rain. At it's peak, the tallest flowers were over my head, and it positively buzzed with bees all summer long. Because of its ongoing beauty, low maintenance nature, and low water requirements, I will definitely be sowing this mix elsewhere in coming years.

Next up: a veggie garden update.

September 07, 2010

Hot House Flower: Book Review and Giveaway

Okay, I'm having a really hard time accepting the fact that it's September already, but the rainy, miserable weather is relentless in its efforts to convince me that summer is indeed over. I have no excuses for my latest absence, aside from an utter lack of desire to sit in front of my computer when I could be swimming or sitting on the beach with a good book instead. 

These past two months have been one of the best summers I've ever had. Of course, all of that fun also means that we didn't get as much work done on the house as we have during the previous two summers, but we put that time to good use getting better acquainted with our community, and it feels like we're finally creating some strong ties. It's starting to feel more like home than anywhere I've lived in a long time. I've even made some good friends, which isn't always easy for this shy (some would say reclusive) introvert.

I've got lots to tell you about the garden, and some delicious new recipes to share, but first I've got another book review for you.

I was asked a few months ago if I would take part in a virtual book tour put on by TLC Book Tours, and while this particular book is a fictional work rather than a book about food, gardening, or insects, the plot does center around plants and their possible effects on our lives, which I thought might appeal to some of you.

Hothouse Flower and the Nine Plants of Desire by Margot Berwin

From the Publisher:

Hothouse Flower and the Nine Plants of Desire is one woman’s journey from the modeling and advertising world of New York City to the rain forests of the Yucatan Peninsula. From the hot and steamy plant dealers in the Union Square Green Market, to the curanderos, herbalists and shamans of Southern Mexico.

Lila Nova is a 32-year-old advertising copywriter who lives alone in a plain white box of an apartment. Recovering from a heartbreaking divorce, Lila has a simple mantra: no pets, no plants, no people, no problems. But when she meets David Exley, a ruggedly handsome plant dealer, a country-sexual, as she calls him, her lonely life turns into something far more colorful. From the harsh streets of Manhattan to the verdant jungles of the Yucatan, Hothouse Flower is the story of a woman who travels beyond sense and comfort to find out what she really wants.

I have to say, my first reaction was to judge the book by its cover - with a title like Hothouse Flower and the Nine Plants of Desire, I was sure it was going to be a bodice ripper set in the steamy jungle of the Yucatan Peninsula. Don't get me wrong, I'm not above indulging in a little "chick lit" once in a while, but I have to admit that I was careful not to leave this book lying around the house when I had friends over, lest they take me for a desperate housewife, escaping the tedium of domestic life in a trashy novel (and so what if I was, anyway?). 

Thankfully, it wasn't nearly as tawdry as I was expecting. I found the botanical "factoids" at the beginning of each chapter very interesting, and was disappointed to discover that the Nine Plants of Desire exist solely as a creation of the author's imagination. 

That being said, the main character, Lila, leaves a little to be desired, and I found it hard to relate to her on almost any level. One could argue that that's because she works in advertising in New York City, a far cry from my own reality, but I don't think that's the only reason. Throughout the story, she is repeatedly mistreated and manipulated by the men in her life, (even when they are supposedly trying to help her), and she seems to just float through the book doing what other people tell her to do. I usually had no idea why she made the choices she did, as there wasn't a lot of back story or emotion present to use as a reference point. I tend to like character driven books, and there just wasn't enough character development for me. In the author's defense, some of this may have been an attempt to maintain an air of mystery around certain people.

While the characters themselves were weak at times, the lessons they provided occasionally proved to be thought provoking. Take this passage on why people aren't always true to themselves, a message one usually only encounters in books about unschooling or attachment parenting: 

"They think they are, but the person they were born to be was covered up by years of living with parents and going to school and fitting in. Every year that passes, a person gets covered up a little bit more, like a sleeping bag slowly zipping up around a body. It's a subtle process until the day a person is totally gone."

There were several other insights sprinkled throughout that left me thinking about the book even after I'd put it down. So, while it's largely easy summer reading, the author obviously has something to say about the human condition, which lends some substance to this otherwise escapist story.

Despite the few problems that I had with the book, overall it was an enjoyable, fast paced, and funny read. There's a bit of a suspension of disbelief required for full enjoyment, but if you can take the leap and believe that putting your faith in strangers and following shamanic visions is an acceptable way to live one's life, you'll be well on your way to adventure in the Yucatan. It might just be the perfect book to tuck into your beach bag, should the sun ever return.

The publishers have offered a free copy of this novel for one lucky reader of this post. Just leave a comment and I will pick a winner at random on September 12th (must be a resident of the US or Canada).

July 28, 2010

The Laundry Line

We finally managed to get the clothes line up and ready before the warm weather hit (not that I have anything against hanging laundry out when the weather is bad), and it's been seeing a lot of use, sometimes up to three loads a day when it's hot.

We dithered for a long time about what kind of line we were going to build. The original plan was to have it run off of one of the decks, but with the house being built into the hillside, that idea proved difficult as it inevitably would have been positioned in such a way that my tall husband would have literally been clotheslined every time he walked past it.

Then, I was flipping through one of my mom's gardening magazines this spring and came across the perfect solution: a free standing laundry line with a trellis on either end for growing vining flowers (you can find the plans here). This is another one of those times when delaying the start of a project left time for the perfect solution to present itself.

We don't have the trellises built on the ends yet (all of those bits and pieces really add up), but the clematises that we planted on either end aren't big enough to need support yet anyway.

Finished or not, it's still a huge improvement over last summer's drying rack.

July 26, 2010

Keeping Bees

If you've watched the news at all in the past couple of years, you undoubtedly will have heard that bee populations have been dying out for reasons unknown. I was told by a local bee keeper this spring that our area actually suffered a 100% loss among domesticated hives this year, and it wasn't a particularly harsh winter (at least not compared to last year). Statistics like that are enough to put a scare into anyone, especially when people like to quote Einstein as having said that humans would die out within four years if honey bees were to disappear.

Not long after hearing about our local situation, I started noticing an abundance of bees on the wild huckleberry bushes during my regular walks, and our rock cress was positively buzzing with these orange-bottomed beauties.

How could these guys be so prolific when the domesticated bees were faring so poorly?

I like to do what I can to help out my bee friends, but I'm certainly not an expert on the subject, so when I was asked to review a couple of new books about bees, I was keen to do so, hoping that it would give me a better understanding of these amazing insects.

The first one that I read is called Keeping the Bees, written by Laurence Packer, a Toronto based mettilologist (bee biologist).

Packer's tone is humorous and familiar, and reading his book is a little like spending an afternoon "talking bees" with a knowledgeable old friend. Some of the information is so interesting that I found myself reading excerpts aloud to my son, such as how cuckoo bees gain access to the "fortresses" of other bees, which, as Packer puts it, "reads like a lesson in ancient military strategy". How could an 11 year old obsessed with battle games not love that? The part about how the larvae of the Francisco oil beetle (about 700 of them) clump together to trick a habropoda bee into thinking it's a female bee (and thereby hitch a ride with him back to the nest where they eat the pollen stores and habropoda children) still gives me the heebee jeebies.

Packer also talks about the fact that honey bees aren't necessarily the best pollinators, but are being relied upon in conventional agriculture because there aren't usually enough wild bees on large industrial farms to effectively pollinate the plants, either because they are too far from significant wild bee habitats, or due to a lack of diversity among crops (resulting in fewer visits from the choosier bumble bees). This practice is spreading disease and ultimately compounding the problems faced by honey bees.

The other great thing about this book is Packer's ability to take a subject matter with the potential to be extremely dry and complicated, and make it accessible and entertaining even to those of us without a background in zoology. This book is a must read for those who would like to know more about wild bees and what we can do to keep them around.

The second book is called the Collins Beekeeper's Bible: Bees, Honey, Recipes & Other Home Uses.

This book focuses largely on the keeping of honey bees, and is absolutely packed with information for anyone interested in setting up their own backyard hive(s). The thing I love most about this book is the abundance of color photographs and gorgeous illustrations. I'm a very visual person, so I found the images (which range from lovely styled photographs and line drawings, to historical prints and etchings) to add to and compliment the practical information perfectly.

This great tome of a book (well over 400 pages) covers the history of bees and beekeeping, includes clear instructions on setting up and maintaining a hive, as well as harvesting honey and other bee products, and has extensive lists of beneficial plants and bee friendly flowers. It also provides dozens of delicious sounding recipes, homemade beauty and cleaning products, as well as the medicinal uses for honey, and crafts using beeswax. You can rest assured that you'll be seeing some of these foods/projects in upcoming posts.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading both Keeping the Bees and The Collins Beekeeper's Bible, and feel I have a greater understanding of bees as a result. I'm sure that I will refer back to both books many times as I continue to set up my garden (and hopefully one day, bee hives). I would definitely recommend them to anyone looking to learn more about bees, wild or domesticated, and think that together they form the basis of a complete and comprehensive bee library.

July 19, 2010

I Clove Summer

Back in early October when the weather was dreary, I eagerly planted the first crop of the summer garden. Garlic may take a long time to turn from one lowly clove into a plump head packed full of them, but it's worth every minute of the time involved - there aren't many meals in this house that don't start with a clove or two.

In honor of this week's garlic harvest, the kids and I decided to celebrate by roasting some of the smaller heads to have with our dinner. My daughter whipped up a batch of Artisan Bread dough (you can find the recipe here on page 4) so we'd have some yummy bread to go with it.

The roasted garlic was so mellow and sweet that we were sucking every last morsel out of the papery skins.

Of course, an appetizer like that deserves an equally special main course, so we made one of our favorite summer meals: pasta tossed with arugula, tomatoes, feta, and yes, more garlic.This is all part of my evil plan to get the kids associating delicious food and happy tummies with manual labor (in the form of gardening).

I'm not sure where I got the original recipe, or whether I'm even using the correct measurements anymore, but it's a delicious way to use up that arugula that's going to seed in your garden. Here's roughly what I do:

Pasta with Arugula, Tomatoes, and Feta:

  • 2 tomatoes, chopped (throw juice and seeds in too)
  • 5 - 6 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 - 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • one bunch arugula, rinsed and chopped
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • 3/4 of a pound of pasta
Assemble the sauce ingredients in a large bowl and mix well. Cook the pasta of your choice according to package directions. When pasta is cooked, drain and add directly to the bowl with the arugula mixture (don't worry if there's a bit of water clinging to the pasta, it will loosen the sauce). Toss to combine. The heat of the pasta wilts the arugula and begins to melt the feta cheese, making everything creamy. This is an excellent, and fast, summer meal.

Meals like this are the reason we go to the trouble of keeping a garden. With our bellies full, we regularly make our way down to the beach for an evening swim. Summer is fleeting in our neck of the woods, and we have to get our fill while we can.

Before too long, it'll be time to plant the garlic again.

July 14, 2010

Me And My Hoe: A Love Story

Don't worry, I'm not going to get all Pretty Woman on you, I just have to take a minute to mention one of the most useful garden tools I've ever had. This hand forged half moon hoe has been a godsend when it comes to weeding (my least favorite chore), making routine garden maintenance a breeze.

The sharp blade slides under the soil's surface, uprooting and slicing weeds. This one is on a long handle (about 5 and 1/2 feet), so I can stand while weeding, saving my back.

You can find similar hoes for less money, but according to Steve Solomon, it's worth getting one made of forged steel because the blades are stronger and can be kept sharp with a wet stone, unlike the cheaper versions which are dull and tend to chip. There are other kinds of "scuffle hoes" with different styles of blades, and I'm sure they all do pretty much the same thing, but the key is to find one that is sharp and can be kept that way, as that will make the job easier in the long run.

I find that the hoe works best when the weather is hot and dry. I run the blade through the garden beds, exposing the weeds' roots, and let the heat of the sun finish them off.  I make sure to do this when I know I won't be watering for a day or two, as this gives the weeds less of a chance to re-root. Most things can be left in place as long as they haven't gone to seed, but anything too pernicious (such as morning glory or creeping buttercup) should be removed completely and thrown in the garbage. Repeating this process every couple of weeks has kept my garden well aerated and weed free. Apparently, if I do this regularly, I'll eventually have fewer weeds to deal with, as most of the seeds in the top layer of soil will have been sprouted and subsequently murdered.

I hope I still get at least a few.

July 11, 2010

What I Did On My Summer Vacation - 2010

A few quick photos from our holiday while I attempt to get back into writing mode.

We traditionally camp when we're on Saltspring, but this time my mom and step dad rented a beautiful old heritage home for the week. The kitchen was amazing, with custom built free standing fir cabinets and an AGA. Though I've always wanted an AGA (which is always warm and ready for use), it kind of lost its charm when we were hit with a heat wave, at which point everyone gave the kitchen a wide berth.

In addition to deer, raccoons, and rabbits, the property had a family of free ranging quail. We saw three adults and a bunch of babies, but they were almost impossible to catch on camera.

For the most part, our days were spent reading, swimming, and laying about, though we did occasionally leave the house to eat. The favored routine was to head to Saltspring Island Cheese to sample their wares (goat cheese topped with truffles is a favorite, as is the one topped with olive tapenade)...

followed by a trip to the Saltspring Island Bread Company.

The "bread lady" makes such amazing things that it's almost impossible to choose, which is why we're obligated to go back daily.

With our bags overflowing, we made our way to Ruckle Park for a picnic on the beach. While passing through the farm on the first day (the 1000 acres surrounding Ruckle farm became a provincial park in 1974), we noticed that they were busy "making hay while the sun shines".

Not having been here for three years made the reunion with our favorite place even more special.  Our bellies full, we spent the afternoons easing back into the familiar surroundings, reminiscing about summers past,  and catching up with old friends.

July 07, 2010

Kickin' Back

Just a quick note to let you know that I'm going to be away for a few more days, as we're halfway through an unexpected, last minute vacation to one of my favorite places, Salt Spring Island. It's been three years since we've had a proper holiday, so we're reveling in the R&R, taking the occasional break to eat, read, and cool off with a swim.
The only downside to the trip is that my darling hubby is stuck back in  in the city bringing home the bacon. He and I started coming here 17 years ago when we were at university in Victoria, thumbing our way to Ruckle Park, the absolute best place to camp, anywhere. We have so many memories here, it feels like a second home.
To read a bit more about this amazing place, and to see where we've  been hanging out all week, click here (scroll to the bottom to start from the beginning).
See you soon!

July 01, 2010

Happy Canada Day!

Wishing my fellow Canucks a very happy Canada Day!
July 1st is also the anniversary of the day we moved into our house, we have been living here for two years now. We'll be taking part in community celebrations, followed up with a barbeque in the rain (how west coast).
So grateful to live where I do!

June 25, 2010

What's New in the Garden

I had no idea when I decided to participate in the Kinder Gardens project how little I would actually have to contribute. It's not like the kids haven't been in the garden over the past month, but as far as having something concrete that I can report on, no dice. My daughter picked out a bunch of herbs so she could start a "Medicine Cat" garden (inspired by the Warriors series), but they're still sitting on the deck waiting to go into the ground.

I think the problem lies with the expectation that they were going to want to plan and carry out some kind of "project".  That's all well and good, but my love of gardening certainly didn't come from my mom forcing me to participate in the growing of our food, it developed naturally out of experiencing the benefits of having a large family garden.  Some of my fondest childhood memories are of long summer days spent stuffing myself with sun warmed raspberries, collecting piles of hazelnuts, and my dad using the bucket of a backhoe as a picking platform to to access the best fruits on our enormous cherry tree.

Freshly picked strawberries to top off our breakfast.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'm going to put away all of the cool, projecty ideas that I have floating around in my head for now and just let the kids enjoy the fruits of our collective (okay, mostly parental) labor.

As for my own garden plans, not having to share garden space means I can have as many projects on the go as I want! I've done things a little differently this year armed with information from Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades by Steve Solomon. I got this book out of the library earlier this year, hoping it would give me some ideas on how to improve our lousy soil, which it did. I have to say, however, that I almost didn't get to that point, as Solomon's tone in the first two thirds of the book is so negative and condescending that I almost threw it across the room several times. I did manage to stick it out until the end, and I'm so glad I did, because my garden is thriving this year. I ended up buying the book, because I think the information is vital to those of us on the west coast, and if Solomon is to be believed (and he must know a bit about gardening on the coast, as he's the founder of Territorial Seed) much of the core advice in other gardening books just doesn't apply to us here.

So, based on his advice, I limed the soil, added bone meal, manure and compost, and made raised beds. Against his advice, I did use our chicken litter to amend the soil (he's against using wood products in the garden, but our soil is so devoid of any organic matter that I figure it can handle it). We also made tunnel cloches using 1/2" pex pipe from the hardware store (a good deal at less than $2 each) and 6 mil plastic. According to the book, cloches are better suited to our climate than solar greenhouses, and they cost considerably less to build.

The frame of the cloche.

This bed was planted on May 24th, the earliest I've ever set out my tomato plants (notice the emerging potato hills to the left of the tomatoes). Based on this year's success, I may set them out even earlier next year.

Solomon uses 2x4's to hold down the edges of the plastic tunnels, but we tried making "clips" using 3/4" pipe on a friend's advice. It didn't work as well as we would have liked, but I suspect that's because we used a scrap of pipe that was a different brand than we'd used for the frame, so they would occasionally let go and fly at my head when I was least expecting it. Next year I will try making them again using the same brand of pipe. In the meantime, we're using a combination of rocks and 2x4's to hold down the edges.

Some of the best advice gained in the book was to let go of the notion of growing tomatoes that require longer than 75 days from transplant, as our summers are just too short and cool. Looking through my seeds, I noticed that many of my heritage tomato seeds from southern seed companies took 100 or more days to mature. That would explain my recent lack of success in the tomato department. The other problem was that the plants would often get chilled and quit growing for a few weeks after transplant, which the cloche prevented. 

Within three weeks, the tomato plants went from about 4 inches tall to well over 2 feet and flowering, so I removed the tunnel earlier this week and put up the tomato spirals:

We built another hoop house for the peppers, which are also flowering and happy. I'll leave this cloche in place for a while longer as peppers like a bit more heat than tomatoes, and are less tolerant of our cool summer nights.

The eggplants' shelter is a little more impromptu, but is working well. I lined the bed with black plastic to collect heat, and made a protective tent out of pipe ends and floating row cover.

It ain't pretty, but a peek underneath reveals happily growing plants:

The potatoes are now fully hilled and flowering. They're doing much better this year than last, when I got a return of about 1:1 (as a friend of mine said, I should have saved myself some time and put the seed potatoes right into the fridge!). I'm looking forward to harvesting a few babies soon and making a batch of lemony potatoes!

Elsewhere in the garden, the three-sisters plot is well on its way, the onions are fattening up, and the blueberry plants are covered in fruit.

It looks like the kids have some work ahead of them!

June 20, 2010

Poultry in Motion

I thought I'd share a couple of photos of the chicken tractor, which, thanks to a break in the weather, is finally finished. We made it out of scrap wood and cedar trim left over from the house construction, as well as bits of leftover fencing.

If you've never heard the term "chicken tractor", it's basically a moveable pen which gets pushed from place to place, allowing the chickens to trim, weed, and aerate your lawn or garden beds, fertilizing the soil along the way. It's beneficial for the soil, and keeps the chickens from getting bored. Curved wooden skids on the high side make it easier to move.

The girls explore their new pen while Chuck trims off the excess wire.

The tractor docks on the opposite side of the coop from the run, and will serve as an extra "room" when it's not being moved around the yard. It will also be handy as a broody pen should we decide to hatch our own chicks (the hardware cloth on the sides is 3/4 inch so babies can't squeeze out), or as a place to keep a sick or injured bird. We're going to make a removeable roof of some kind to cover one half of it, which will give them some shelter from the elements.

I can't wait to take this baby for a spin!


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