The Duldrums of Winter

There really isn’t much to winter in the garden, except the muddly slog to the coop and back to bring in the eggs. Luckily my hens are responding well to having a light in the coop and I’m getting almost 3 eggs a day, daily from my 3 hens.

I haven’t posted in forever, and the hens producing now reminds me of the horrible luck I had last year. My coop was all done and ready to be inhabited, and I’d hatched 5 chickens out of 18 (pretty low hatching rate, but it was my first go). 2 were roosters so I was down to 3 hens. Wanting to get my flock up in numbers I went to a farm in the valley where a lady was selling some lovely lavender orpingtons. I knew there was a risk buying adult birds, but her farm and animals looked good and healthy and I bought 3 birds to bring home. Almost immediately 1 of my birds got a goopy eye. The next day one of her birds died suddenly, and another of mine had a goopy eye. Then both were coughing. The next day all my birds were coughing. Sadly I learned they had a chronic, incurable and highly contagious respiratory virus. There was nothing I could do to help them, and with such a contagious and virulent disease I couldn’t visit any house with chickens and go in their yard. I worried I would spread the disease throughout my neighbourhood. In the end the only thing I could do was cull the entire flock. It was a horrible learning experience.

Since then I have cleaned out and bleached the entire coop and run, and left it without a flock for 3 months. I worked with a neighbourhood kid down the road to incubate 10 more eggs (hatching 50% this time) and now have 3 happy, healthy hens. I can’t add to my flock with adult birds, I’ve learned that lesson the hard way, so I’ll be incubating more eggs with the preschool soon. That way I can have another bird, as can my parents who lost a bird to a predator last week.

Anyway, that was 6 months ago and now the only thing on my winter plate is the odd beet here and there, as I was so sad about the chickens I didn’t plant a winter garden. I’m shaking it off and thinking now about….

Seeds. Yup, I won’t bore you with another LONG, LONG list of seeds this time. I’m working away in my mind though, and have plans to:

Start some seeds in the next couple of weeks
Set up a new, more resilient greenhouse (those stupid plastic mini-greenhouses are worse than useless!)
Move the raspberries AGAIN

I did a couple of things last summer that worked well for me. I planted some thistle-y, thorny berries in the back planters against our fence to keep the marauders out. They are thriving (surprise surprise). I also hired a friend’s teenage son to help me with the weeding and hauling and coop-cleaning. He was fantastic to have around, very useful and I felt good about teaching him the basics of being a good employee (be confident, come up with ideas, work hard but take a break for water, ha!). I highly recommend hiring a teenager, it’s a good community builder.

Anyways, I hoping to keep the good ideas and toss the bad. I may even just toss these raspberries honestly, the berries are small, the harvests are small and they aren’t ever where I want them to be…

How are your plans coming along?

I’ve started the coop! I cleared a big area, levelled it, dug in foundation blocks, made a level and square base plate that I doubled, sandwiching 2 layers hardware cloth in between. One piece to make an apron and one piece that will run up the outside where it will cover the run. The apron will run horizontally for 30″ and be covered with pavers with planters on top. This apron and run will keep out digging animals – raccoons, coyotes and dogs. The coop and run will have a peaked roof to keep out hawks, eagles and the rain. This much work took 3 full days. I assume the framing will take 2 full days, the roof trusses 2 full days and then finishing the house structure itself another 6-10 days. Given that I only have weekends this may take a while! I’m hoping to take off 3 days in early March to commit to finishing it up, but I may not be far along enough to have it bird-ready at that point. I really want easter chicks, but we’ll see I guess :)


Coop_Base plate with apron

I finally post again

You can’t take the gloomy weather any more

Your 4 year old draws a “list” of things she wants to grow in the garden

You have an itch to drive to Ladner (otherwise never happens! HA!).

So… it’s almost time for me to go to Westcoast Seeds and pick up the year’s seeds! I didn’t get a good garden in last year, let alone do any seed saving. I also doubt that many of my seeds in storage will still be viable given their age, but here’s what I have:

  • Romaine lettuce
  • Turnips
  • sugar snap peas
  • parsnips
  • dill
  • kale
  • beets
  • rutabaga
  • cantaloupe
  • mesclun mix
  • basil
  • parsley
  • watermelon
  • asparagus
  • winter savory herbs
  • chives
  • scallopini
  • Green hubbard squash
  • raddichio
  • cilantro
  • broccoli
  • brussel sprouts

I don’t need to plant the parsley or chives, but I might try out everything else. I definitely want more salad greens, beets and squash this year. I need to be very careful when transplanting though – that’s why my garden was minimal last year, everything got eaten to the roots as soon as I planted it. We were renovating and I didn’t have the time to a) cloche or otherwise protect individual plants from slugs and b) do daily checks to get rid of pests and to water properly. This year my only other project is the chicken coop, so we should be able to really get into the garden. In general I want to prioritise the back yard, and get it safe for the kids to play so they can be out there while I garden.

I did do some big work over the winter, clearing a HUGE space. We now have a permanent parking spot for our Trillium 1300 trailer – my best purchase EVER! I’m going to pack it and the kids up this August and tramp all over BC. Well, the fun parts of BC at least :). We also built a fence! YAY! So I’m putting a bed out in front of the fence in the alley and planting blackberries in it. That will help with security and of course the berries will be nice – what’s left after they get picked by others that is. I’m realistic if nothing else.  I also cleared and levelled an area that I planted with grass for the kids. It’s not perfect yet but it’s on its way. Things that are left to do:

  • build coop (right now I have a space cleared and levelled, and foundation blocks are almost all in)
  • Move raspberries
  • clear out northeast side of yard (where the raspberries were) and move/build beds to put in for all the veggies – this will be a better layout and is a result of putting in the spot for the trailer.
  • clear mint out of large planter and make that planter only berries (add more blueberry plants). It will have gooseberries, blueberries and strawberries. I’ll make a  mint only planter of some kind, although it really kept the carrot flies off my carrots.
  • build trellises (I found tons of perfect wood for this when going through the woodpile for the coop) for tomatoes, cucumbers and squash.
  • Get rid of the last wood pile (s)

I don’t have any vacation time planned until the end of June/beginning of July that I can spend on the big projects, so I’m really going to have to push on the weekends. The coop is a priority, along with starting seeds. I think I could get all the beds moved and built in one weekend though, there’s not too much work in it. I’m not sure when the best time to move the raspberries are though – I wanted to do it last fall but wasn’t ready. I’m hoping that March would work. Any suggestions about that are more than welcome.

Next year I plan to get rid of the big lean-to we have out there full of building supplies, as well as any other piles we have of siding etc. We should be done with that stuff by then. This will mean I’ll have the perfect area to put in an orchard. It’s a long chain link fence running north south. I think I should be able to fit at least 6-8 espaliered trees along it. That will help with privacy, the ugliness and of course provide us with apples and pears. Soooooo exciting! Just not something for this year.

So, back to seeds! I’ll need plenty of tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, some more kale (big favourite of mine), beans, peppers etc. I’m excited but also don’t have  lot of money so I’m going to have to be careful not to buy too much. I don’t think my asparagus crown made it, but I guess I’ll find out soon. I was really hoping it would :(

I’ll keep you well updated on the coop progress though – I’ve been planning this thing for 3 years! I’ve changed my mind about the design, it’s now going to be very similar to a garden shed, with a pitched roof. It will be 6 feet wide by 10 feet long. The coop itself will be 5X6, and the run will be under the roof and 5X6 as well. The coop will be up off the ground so that the total run space is actually the 6X10, 60 square feet being plenty for 4 chickens. I found a GREAT deal on hardware cloth, 100 feet for $73 . $60 would have bought me 20 feet at home depot. Very excited about that. So anyway, I plan to hang planters off the south wall to grow lettuce etc and get the most use from the space. The north side will have the nesting boxes for easy egg collecting access. The east side will have a huge window that swings open to help with cleaning, as well as the pop door and ramp for the chickens. The west side butts up against the fence. There will be vents under the peaks of the roof eaves as well as a hardware clothed window above the nesting boxes for ventilation. The run is covered, as I mentioned, and will have a human-sized screened and hardware-clothed door on the east end. The sides of the run and the apron will be in hardware cloth to prevent predators from killing the chickens.

The exciting news is that both my daughter’s preschool and my son’s kindergarten are interested in hatching eggs. That means that they’ll get to learn about incubating eggs and looking after the chicks. I will also be helping the preschool get a coop so they can keep 4 of the chickens there to have as pets, and to provide eggs for their snacks. I will get to keep 4 chickens too, out of the 2 classes worth of batches.  So, I need to learn more about that whole process, and get my coop built fast so I’m ready for them. Should be interesting! And slightly stressful… I’m going to read my Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens in preparation.

So, with the weekend almost upon us my big project is to work on the coop (finish foundation and apron) and build the alley raised bed and fill it with soil. I also plan to get my seeds this weekend, since we’re going to IKEA in Richmond anyway. Wish me luck!

Busy Week!

Oh man, I’ve been canning until the middle of the night! I just finished some pickles (garlic dill, traditional garlic and sweet crunch) and a neighbour just came by with 6 lbs of plums. I’m out tomorrow so I set right to making a simple jam. He might have more and if he does I’ll put up some plum chutney and some spiced plum butter NOM. In the meantime I’ve been back to my bread! A whole new world of bread has opened to me. Gone are the days of “pretty good” bread. If you buy one bread book buy “the Breadmaker’s Apprentice”. It’s brilliant. If you want to learn the ins and outs, the chemistry, the basics this is your book. I’ve never made better bread. Peter Reindhart is passionate and an excellent teacher, but most of all it’s just so well laid out it sucks you in. I made a perfect sandwich bread that I had to give away before I ate it all, and a Pain Compagne that was better than anything I’ve tried for a rustic bread and I still know that I can make it 10X better with the knowledge I got from this book. Buy it, or get it out from your library. Awesome.

Anyways, that’s me. I’m not growing much this year but I’m canning and baking my heart out! I’m going to try greek yoghurt next weekend. Await the post with my hilarious errors :)

I made some sweet pickled preserves this week – a mix of cherries from Nao’s tree and rhubarb from my garden. I got the recipe from the River Cottage Preserves Handbook, one of my favourite preserves books EVER. They tend towards small batch and interesting recipes. I only got two jars out of it, but that’s one for Thanksgiving and one for Christmas, enough for me! Supposedly it’s best with poultry.

I have an abundance of mint so I’m also going to make a mint syrup, and probably a lavender syrup as well. I have a ton now, because I put  a note through a neighbour’s door asking them if they were going to harvest. If not, I’d do it and bring them some jam in return. They called right back and now I have a big basket of lovely lavender! I left a lot for the bees as they were very busy around the plants, and just in case the neighbour changed their mind.

Today through Friday is the blueberry festival out at UBC, with tons of events and the like, but most of all – affordable flats of local blueberries. I will buy a couple of flats to eat, freeze and preserve. I’m going to make a blueberry-lavender jam, as suggested by Nao, as well as some preserved blueberries with bay and possibly some blueberry syrup for the kids’ waffles. We don’t have much freezer space, so preserving is best for us.

I also hope to can some peaches this year, but need a good source for the fruit. Anyone here in Vancouver know where I should go? I have the August long weekend coming up that I could do a road trip if need be…

Well, this year has been a little different than last year, to say the least! I have had NO time, NO energy and so little motivation. It’s been really tough. I got a rough start when every transplant or direct sow got completely eaten over night every time I tried it. I finally took to surrounding things with milk cartons, but I caught on too late and got really down on things. My tomatoes are doing OK, but it’s been a real struggle to get anything else going. I have one polycultural bed that barely pulled through but at least is giving me some kale and may yield a few carrots. I’m hoping the broccoli will really produce this time, but who knows, with my luck this year!

The real winner this year has been the strawberries. The plants I bought last year at the UBC plant sale are AMAZING! I got about 8 lbs of giant, sweet, perfect berries. I couldn’t make anything with them, the kids just ate everything that came in. That’s just fine with me. My gooseberries are taking their time getting sweet, but I’m patient because it took everything I had to save those plants. They go attacked by something that looks like a wasp that ate every leaf it could get to before I sprayed it down with soapy water. Ugh, I hope they keep making it through the year!

Speaking of the year, this one started off SO cold and rainy I pretty much lost a month. I only managed to keep two pea plants alive and they only just started producing. I got about 3 weeks out of my raspberries, and the berries were tiny. I think I want to find a new variety with larger berries.

And now the shocking news: I have to rip up and redo the whole garden. This year we bought a 1973 Trillium trailer which has made my summer camping solo with the kids much more possible (hence not enough time in the garden!) but I’d like to store it covered. The only way to do so without putting shade right where I don’t want it is to start all over again. A part of me is heartbroken, the other part is excited to fix some of the things that haven’t been working with the current layout. First of all I know that everything will be in beds. Raised beds are SO much easier for me to work with, it’s a no-brainer for me now. I have a ton of ideas I’ll share with you, including a map.

I’ll check back in soon and talk about the stuff I *have* been getting done, like the sweet pickled cherries I just made with lovely cherries we picked at http://www.honeygrove.ca/, my favourite farm in the world… I got to learn how to braid garlic there with Nao, who being amazing, gave me my own braid to take home – I’m SO excited about that!

Anyhoo, sorry for the radio silence, I think I’ve been embarrassed about the state of affairs in my back yard!

I can’t even begin to explain why I haven’t been writing lately. It’s all rather cliche anyways – work, kids, weather, injuries, kids, work, kids. The usual. That said, I haven’t given up on my dream, just the blog, so we’re still on track! Well, a heavily-revised track.

I have started some pumpkin plants, tomatoes, basil and thyme for the garden. I expect to start some lettuce etc this weekend, but I need to repot my toms first. I started my plants in my lovely sister’s vermicompost this year, instead of starter soil. Don’t ask – I saw the opportunity to start some plants and that’s all I had. The result? Very very very vigorous growth! I can’t keep up with them! I thought they’d have trouble breaking through the soil since it clumped really hard, but they made it and have been growing and putting on leaves about 10X faster than last year. I’m in shock.

I haven’t built the chicken coop yet. We renovated our basement last fall/winter and all my time went to that. Now I have an epic job ahead of me cleaning up the debris, saving what I can from the crush and moving forward. I have found this: http://vancouver.en.craigslist.ca/van/zip/2914541398.html on craigslist and am DETERMINED to get it. I could combine a play structure with the coop! WHY DIDN’T I THINK OF THIS BEFORE? I mean I have seen it done a MILLION times, I saw another free structure and thought of converting it, but it wasn’t until the man assumed it’s what I meant when I showed him this one when I really started considering keeping both elements. Now I can’t handle the wait to find out if it’s ours. So desperate to have it, since it’s actually close, well made and interesting to look at. The chickens could go under either of the two taller decks, I think. I need to get out to it and measure it obviously. Anyways, I’m excited. Very excited.

So, it could be sooner than later for me, which is great and scary at the same time. I need to do some sewing for my daughter’s birthday, she has a broken arm right now and needs me more than ever, and our house. Our house. Always a project desperately needing my attention. So we’ll see I guess!

I need a good couple of weekends with not too much rain to get into the garden. I’m hoping for Saturday morning given the forecast. Wish me luck!

PS What have you started so far?


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