Monday, December 14, 2009

My Loud, Reclaimed Couch

My last couch was saved from a back alley in Spruce Avenue. It was extra long, super pink and only half of it fit in the hatchback of our small Yaris.

A few years later I traded up. I fell in love with another vintage special at the Bissell Centre Thrift Shoppe. She was saggy, dusty and, when you found yourself snuggled in a fort built out of her cushions you realized, she was very stinky. But when I sat down, her arms curved familiarly around me. Her brown brocade flower pattern shouted, “Look at me!” I couldn’t leave her at the shop, so spent $50 to bring her home.

My husband Mat wasn’t so sure about this new seating arrangement. Pink hadn’t been his favorite couch colour but at least it had no pattern to shout at him from the living room. I convinced him that we could make the couch fit. I had a vision.

My vision was finally realized over a long weekend, initiated partly by the aforementioned smell and partly due to a strong hormonal need to nest. Here’s what happened:

  1. I emptied the cushions of their disintegrating foam then soaked the covers in a tub of vinegar overnight. When it came to rinsing them, those cushion covers required 10 minutes under the hard stream of the tap before the water ran clear.
  2. After buying 4-inch thick High Density Foam (bought on sale at Fabricland), I cut the pattern of each cushion cover out, then wrapped and glued on thin quilt batting to soften the edges of the foam (I used spray-on glue).
  3. Next I squeezed the new foam into the old covers and managed to pop all four zippers, leaving me no choice but to sew up the covers.   

  1. As I worked on the cushions, Mat feverishly blasted the couch with an upholstery cleaner rented from Save-On Foods. 

  1. Then I painted the wood parts a Robin Egg Blue (I love this colour but am not brave enough to do a whole wall of it).

  1. I used liquid fabric glue to fuse on new trim. Beaded blue trimmed the bottom and a dark brown trim replaced the cream around the arms and back.

  1. I sprayed everything with Scotch Guard (A decidedly non-environmentally friendly thing to do but you didn’t see what I saw in that tub!)
  2. Finally, I recovered my throw cushions using silk fabric I had found at a liquidation sale and buttons from Value Village.

 I write this from a firm, comfy perch. The couch has not gotten any less loud but it has a custom look and a great set of cushions that you have to respect it for.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Homesteaders up to our elbows in apples and potatoes

This fall a number of homesteaders from Alberta Avenue area have convened cheerfully in the Community League kitchen.

In October, six of us joined forces to process pounds and pounds of apples (picked from a couple very large trees!). At the end of a long day we had:
- 240 cups of frozen apple slices
- 30 litres of applesauce
- 15 jars of crab apple jelly
- 7 pints of crab apple syrup
- dehydrated apple slices for snack

Then in November, 14 people squeezed into the kitchen again. This time to produce a 1000 perogies. Neighbour Alice walked us through a recipe her Ukrainian neighbour had shared with her. Four delectable varieties were made: Cheddar cheese, cottage cheese, onion, and blueberry (this last one was a surprisingly delicious addition!). Pictures yet to come...

Thanks to the City of Edmonton Matching Grant, our neighbourhood now has a Dehydrator and Food Processor to share. If you want to mash apples/tomatoes/potatoes or dehydrate them (or jerky/seeds/flowers/etc), email me and we'll arrange a way for you to borrow these.

If you want to be informed of other Homesteader Group activities, email me and I'll make sure to add you to our group's contact list.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

What Playdoh and Irish Cream have in common

Gift giving is a complicated social experience and there’s no other time like Christmas to pile on the complexity. How many of the following questions have you wrestled with?

Who and what circles should receive a gift? Should I give gifts only to those I know will give them in  return? What do I do when someone gives a gift and I’ve nothing to offer in return? What if I exchange a gift that is clearly cheaper? Will the receiver be offended if my gift is second hand/homemade/bought at an outlet?

I must admit that some years the myriad of potential problems pretty quickly saps the joy out of giving.
This season (spoiler alert for the loved ones/neighbours/useful acquaintances in my life) I may opt out. The very act of typing those questions made my eyes start twitching.

Then again, maybe I’ll make up some very large batches of the following items (they are sure to please most people). Hey, perhaps you can make some up too then we can exchange the same homemade gift and call it ‘even’!  

Mom’s Playdoh- (for the kids or kid-at-heart in your life)

1. Mix together in a small saucepan:
-¼ Cup salt
-1Cup flour
-1Tablespoon Cream of Tarter
-1Cup water
-1 Tablespoon oil
-Food Colouring (use lots for vibrant colour)

2. Cook over medium heat (stirring constantly) until mixture forms a thick ball.
3. Remove from heat and let cool.
4. Knead until smooth.

Bath Soak- (for the bathers or the people- you- wish- were- bathers in your life)
           1. Mix together in a large bowl:
-       4 Cup fine sea salt
-       4 Cup baking soda
-       4 Cup milk powder
-       10-20 drops essential oil
-       dried lavender, rose petals, citrus peal or favorite herb (optional)
2. Divide into pretty jars. Makes 3 litres of bath soak.

Pretty Convincing Irish Cream (this is a gift I give myself when I’m making the other gifts)

1. Mix together:

- 1 can sweetened condensed milk
- 1 Cup whiskey
- 2 Tablespoons Chocolate syrup
- ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
-½ teaspoon coconut extract
-2 Cups- half and half cream
-1 teaspoon- instant coffee

2.     Bottle and refrigerate.  Makes 1 litre. Expires in 3 weeks (roughly).

Hope these tried and true gift ideas bring back (or carry on!) the joy of the giving.  And if I forget to give you a gift: May you have a very blessed Christmas from my homestead to yours.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Cooking as Grief Therapy

Cooking is good grief therapy, I have discovered. For most of the week my grandmother has laid at the University Hospital. The first day I visited, the doctor checked in. Holding Grandma’s wrist, she asked conversationally, “And how are you doing today?”
“I’m dying,” Grandma said matter-of-factly, with only a hint of irony in her voice. The doctor quickly moved on to the business of keeping her comfortable.  Yet, how I love the way Grandma embraced the reality of her passing. Common sense, pragmatism and surprising good humour were her strengths in life.

In my first memory of her, she is descending from the Greyhound bus that had meandered its way from Edmonton to the Crowsnest Pass, stopping at most of the postal codes in between.  Instead of a scowl one would expect to see on one disembarking from this terrible trip, she wore a huge grin. “I got the seniors rate!” she said, terribly pleased with herself.

I’m sure she was happy to see her progeny. But she was possibly more thrilled at her deal. In fact, sometimes as I spring-clean my closets, and under the bed, and the downstairs ‘storage room’, I curse the bargain-lover in me. I have Grandma to thank for that trait. (Mostly its a blessing... ask me on any given day what I am wearing that is second hand and I’ll happily tell you what, where I bought it AND ESPECIALLY how much I bought it for. This trait is one shared by many of my maternal family. At any given reunion, compliment an aunt on her blouse, shoes, or purse and she will not thank you for the compliment but gleefully report how much she paid for it. Usually if its over $5 you can’t brag about it.)

After my husband and I moved into our first apartment, we invited my grandparents over for supper. I served Greek salad as a starter. We munched quietly away until Grandma bit into her first yellow pepper. “What is this delicious thing?” she asked. Never had she tried a yellow pepper. The more affordable green ones, she knew, but yellow peppers were a decadence that she hadn’t indulged!  I loved this about her. She remembered a time when expensive food and out-of-season treats were not an option. So she appreciated these foods in a way I can’t due to my laissez-faire approach (at best) and sense of entitlement (at worst).

She was someone who lived out the values of the type of Homesteaders that I respect so much. She lived conscientiously. Not only was she thoughtful about her finances and valued recycling over new, she was careful about her relationships too. She was committed to her community and dedicated her life to her family, church, neighbourhood.  She was creative about how to make resources stretch and she cheerfully dropped her agenda for the sake of other’s emergencies.  

On Monday morning, Grandma passed away. I made this pie in memory of her. It, as did she, made me feel warm and comfortable.

Squash, Leek and Corn Pie with Garlic Cheese Sauce
1. Heat oven to 350.
2. Thaw or prepare pie shell for two pies.
3. Cook and cool one medium sized Buttercup or Butternut squash (I cut it in half and place face down in roasting pan in oven at 350. Put a little water in bottom of pan to steam. It’s finished when edible parts feel soft). Remove pulp, seeds and skin. Mash squash.
4. In olive oil, fry 2-3 leeks (white and light green parts) and 3-5 minced garlic bulbs until slightly browned (about 5 minutes).

5. Add squash to pan plus: 2 cups Sharp Cheddar Cheese, 2 cups Corn (frozen or fresh), 2 – 4 Tablespoons Pesto (or herb mix), Salt and Pepper to taste.  Mix together.

6. Place mixture in pie shell and cover with top shell. Cook for 1 hour or until crust is golden.
7. Whisk following ingredients in saucepan 5 minutes before serving pie. Stir until thickened.
- 2 T melted butter, 2 T flour, 1 C milk, 1 C cheese, 1 – 3 t garlic powder (to taste)
8. Makes two pies. Serve pie hot with garlic cheese sauce drizzled on top.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Herbs Pesto Style

The herbs were ready to be picked but I was putting the inevitable off. Picking them would mean acknowledging winter is a-coming. I also was mourning the loss of fresh herbs 'out back' for my cooking pleasure.

Setting all this aside, I gathered the strength and cut my basil, oregano, parsley, chives, (some) borage down. I rinsed them well then let them dry overnight.

I've been experimenting with the recipes from Keeping Food Fresh: Old World Techniques and Recipes by The Gardeners and Farmers of Terre Vivante. This recipe is adapted from there.

1. Chop mix of herbs very finely (the more variation of herbs, the more interesting the flavour).
2. Chop/Mince garlic (vary amount according to your taste. I used a whole bulb for about 4 cups of chopped herbs)
3. Mix herbs and garlic with coarse salt (about 1 teaspoon per 1 pound of herbs).
4. Place mixture in sterilized jars (smaller is better). Avoid allowing too much air in, but don't pack herbs too tightly so that oil can penetrate them. Fill jars to 1/2 inch from top.
5. Pour over herbs about 1 Tablespoon of vinegar per 250 Ml jar and 3/4 oil per 250 ML jar. There should be a layer of oil left on top once oil has infused mixture. If not, add more oil until there is a thin layer at the top OR pack herbs in a little more firmly.
6. Tightly screw on lids and store in a cool (10- 15 degrees), dark place or keep in the fridge.

Use this to flavour pasta, vegetables, grains, salads or spread thinly on bread. It should keep for up to a year in a cool place.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Spicy Rhubarb Chutney Recipe

As the number of apple and rhubarb harvest days dwindle, here’s a Spicy Rhubarb Chutney recipe. Partner it with pork or chicken, or try it on toast for a savory jam!
1. Combine in saucepan:
a. 4 C chopped rhubarb
b. 1C sugar
c. 1/3 C white vinegar
d. 2 apples
e. ½ C raisins
f. ¼ C chopped onion
g. 1T minced gingerroot
2. Cook, covered, on medium heat for 10 minutes or until thickened and fruit is soft, stirring occasionally.
3. Add:
a. 1 t cinnamon
b. 1t salt
c. ¼ t ground cloves
4. Cook a few minutes longer, stirring frequently.
5. Freeze or can. If canning, allow 10 minutes of processing for 250 ml jars, 15 minutes for 500 ml. Makes 4 cups.
Adapted From “Put a Lid on It!” By Ellie Topp and Margaret Howard. Pick it up at the Sprucewood Library for more great recipes.

A Review of the Square foot Gardening method

The squash have been beckoning me. I’ve never had such a large Sp
aghetti squash or Butternut squash grow in my yard and I’m eager to eat ‘em. So while the coming frost doesn’t thrill me, picking my squash may help me tolerate it.

1. The square foot pattern of planting, instead of rows, made it easier to keep track of how many plants I had, as well as easier to ‘companion plant’. I also think I was able to ‘design’ my veggie garden better than in years past; the aesthetic was much prettier.The first season of using Square Foot gardening (a type of raised bed gardening that Mel Bartholomew has advocated in his book by the same name) is behind me. If you remember, in my May article I outlined how we set up the gardens on our otherwise useless backyard cement pad. I planted a variety of t
hings, some I had tried before in my traditional garden while others were new, then I stepped back and waited for the miracle of huge, organic vegetables to emerge. Mel Bartholomew had promised this, as well as the elimination of weeding, fertilizing and tilling. Here’s a short review of the method:
2. While Mel promised weeding would be a thing of the past with Square Foot Gardening, I didn’t experience that! Sure there are less weeds, but perhaps thanks to my weedy alley, I still had to get on my knees and yank out chickweed.
3. More frequent waterings were required (case in point, I haven’t harvested a single cucumber from my growing vine because I can’t keep up with the watering). Reflected heat from the cement pad has no doubt added to this problem. Others might suggest it’s the drought!
4. A strange mold also grew in only one of the beds. After one week with lots of rain, there appeared some dark, hard piles of what looked like cat puke. I dug into them and they were the consistency of Styrofoam with a couple different layers of colour and consistency. My girlfriend, who works at Telus World of Science, did some sleuthing and emailed me back with the verdict: Dog Vomit Slime Mold!?!? Official title. No lie. It wasn’t harmful but looked gross. I aerated and it went away.

5. Most veggies grew as well in the boxes as in my traditional garden: Tomatoes, carrots, onions, spinach, corn, beans, peas and potatoes grew large. My basil and chili peppers didn’t seem to get as large in the boxes, nor did my beets. I wonder too if the squash would have grown bigger with more space.

6. Fertilizing was also supposed to be a thing of the past, according to Mel. About mid-July, I found my beans and corn turning yellow. Thankfully someone had commented on my blog that she found she had to fertilize. I added a little organic veggie fertilizer (I was out of compost) and the leaves grew green again.
7. Experimentation is still required in the planting design. For instance, I didn’t realize how big my potatoes would get, or how much shade the peas would give off. I found that by August, most of the produce I planted was gone (read eaten!). So I may move my peppers and basil into pots, and leave more space for carrots and beets.
Overall, there was less work and more yields from my garden boxes- if only because my gardens were more organized and I could keep track of produce and replant as needed (I have my third planting of spinach now growing). I am excited that I ‘reclaimed’ the wasted space of my cement pad. Now as the frost comes, I guess I can occupy my time with next year’s planting design; that and cooking up some buttercup squash.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

'Making' Yogurt

On Sunday afternoons at the Old Halton Homestead, Mama Halton would pull two large yogurt containers from the fridge and, under intense scrutiny from her six kids, would serve up 8 equal portions. Legend says, each child would grab their share and move off greedily to their separate corners. Some would eat the coveted treat quickly (you never know who’ll jump you). Others would go slow and as the ‘Inhalers’ finished the ‘Savorers’ exaggeratingly licked the yogurt from their spoons. The taunting usually meant someone got hurt.
Yogurt was a big deal for a large family living with one income. It doesn’t come cheap. So when I read that it’s possible to make yogurt at home with milk, milk powder and a tiny amount of yogurt with active bacteria, I was pretty stoked to try it.
There are at least a half dozen ways to make my husband’s family’s most beloved treat . You can make yogurt by putting your milk out in the sun. You can make it by putting milk over your wood burner. You can make it in the oven and in the crock-pot and in a thermos. It all sounds cheap and easy.
Turns out its not as easy as I thought. Tonight I’m on my third attempt. On my first try I managed to burn the ‘yogurt’. The second try ended with a gelatinous, sour mixture that was okay with curry but not passable on its own (the texture was a little like phlegm, so it didn’t go down real easy).
This will be my final attempt. A failure tonight means that the Legend of the Halton Yogurt Sundays will soon become our reality… with a growing family I can’t afford yogurt as an everyday thing.
To keep the tension high for you, I’m going to check on my batches (one is in the crock-pot and another in a thermos) after I run through the details. This basic recipe can be found in multiple sources, however I’m working from the books: The Backyard Homestead by Carleen Madigan and Country Wisdom and Know how by Editors of Storey Books.
Prep: Make sure all utensils are sterilized in the dishwasher or by boiling for 1 minute. Yogurt may come from the interaction of bacteria, heat and milk, but it’s only a certain kind of bacteria you want to grow!
1. Heat/Scald 4 cups of milk – whatever milk fat you choose- to 180 F over medium/high heat.
2. Remove from heat and add 1/3 skim milk powder (If you want to sweeten yogurt, also now add about 1/3 C of sweetener like honey, maple syrup, sugar or artificial sweetener).
3. Let mixture cool to 90 F- 120 F (this step can be speeded up by putting mixture in a chilled bowl in the fridge).
4. Whisk in 1 Rounded Tablespoon of Plain Yogurt with Active Bacteria (I picked up single serving containers at the grocery store)
A. FOR CROCK-POT- HEAT CROCK-POT ON LOW UNTIL HOT TO TOUCH. Place mixture in containers that have tight closing lids (glass jars used for canning work great) and place these in crock-pot. Cover and turn off heat. Over the next three hours, turn on heat to ‘low’ every hour for 10 minute stints. Place containers in the fridge to further thicken.
B. FOR THERMOS- Pour mixture into pre-heated (I boiled it) thermos then do not agitate! Wait 3 hours to check for firmness. When thick, place in fridge to further thicken.
Yogurt can be flavoured with fresh or canned fruit after yogurt is made, or you may add 1 Tablespoon of jam or syrup to bottom of containers before adding the milk mixture.
This is the routine I followed three hours ago and now it is time to check on my yogurt’s status. If you don’t mind waiting, I’ll be a minute…
It is a sad day at the Halton Homestead. Seems I may be forever doomed to supermarket yogurt treats. All I’ve got in my containers is flavoured warm milk. However, since I am an optimist and one of the books does say to leave overnight, I’m going to sleep on it and check it in the morning. Stay tuned.
(8 hours later)
As I opened my yogurt jars this morning, I was treated to the smell of sweet… jam and sour milk. . I’ve been skunked again
My sources give a number of reasons for milk not thickening:
- Too little ‘starter’ yogurt
- ‘Starter’ bacteria was inactive
- Incubation temperature was too hot or cold
- Milk was too hot or cold when ‘starter’ yogurt was added
- Utensils were not sterilized
Frankly that’s a lot of possibilities and, at least for this year, I’m going to accept failure. But perhaps you will have more luck.
And after reflection through the night, there is an option besides supermarket brands. I think I’ll buy a yogurt maker appliance; limited storage be damned.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Summer Yummer Recipes

It’s August and I’ll be spending as much time as possible outside, eating and drinking delicious things. Here are a few recipes I’ll be enjoying, taking full advantage of all the food that is finally ‘in season’ here in Alberta!

BBQ Veggies
1.     Spray sheet of aluminum foil with oil.
2.     Cut up any amount and kind of veggies (zucchini, carrot, onion, bean, potato, bell pepper work best) and place in large bowl.
3.     Add enough olive oil to coat veggies (2-4 T should do it).
4.     Spice with salt and pepper as well as any of the following combos: oregano and lemon OR dill and lemon OR rosemary and chopped garlic
5.     Put veggies on foil and wrap. Make small cuts at top to allow veggies to vent.
6.     Cook on BBQ at Medium- low temperature until veggies are soft (around 20- 40 minutes). TIP: To speed up cook time of potatoes and carrots, microwave pieces first so they are half cooked.

Homemade Teriyaki Sauce
1.     Mix:
·  1 part ketchup
·  1 part brown sugar
·  1 part soya sauce
Use on chicken or pork when BBQing, or great for a fresh, garden-vegetable stir-fry

1.         Place 12 medium mint leaves at bottom of glass.
2.         Add:
·  Crushed ice
·  1 oz spiced rum
·  1 t honey
·  0.5 oz lime juice
·  2 oz soda/ sprite/fresca
3.           Mix with vigor

Iced Tea
1. In a large pitcher mix:
·  1.5 litres boiling water
·  6 of your favorite tea bags (bought cheap in bulk at Save-on or superstore) or try flavoured Rooibos for a great decaf drink
·  honey to taste
·  1- 2 freshly squeezed lemon juice (add pulp if you like)
Mix above ingredients and let sit in the sun for a day. Add ice and serve.

Chocolate Zucchini Cake (Best of Bridge)
1. Heat oven to 325 F
2. Cream together:
· ¼ C butter
· ½ C vegetable oil
· 1 ¾ C sugar
· 2 eggs
· 1 t vanilla
· ½ C sour milk (add 1 tsp vinegar to regular milk)
3. In separate bowl, sift together:
· 2 ½ C flour (white or whole wheat)
· ¼ C cocoa powder
· ½ t baking powder
· 1 t baking soda
· ½ t cinnamon
· 1 t cloves
4. Mix dry ingredients with creamed mixture.
5. Add:
· 2 C grated zucchini
· ¼ C chocolate chips (I like the small and dark ones)
· 1- 2 C berries (optional).
6. Bake in 9x13 greased pan for 45 minutes until toothpick comes out dry. Once cool, I decorate with sprinkled icing sugar, mint leaves and berries.

Fruit Leather
1.     Grind any fruit in the blender (berries work best). Don’t add water, unless the blender cannot function without it.
2.     Spread thinly on plastic wrap lined cookie sheet.
3.     Place in oven at 250 F overnight or leave outside in warm weather for 1-2 days (covered to keep bugs out).
4.     Peel and enjoy!

Frozen Yogurt Cups
1.     Mix in a blender:
·  1 part plain yogurt
·  1 part fruit (soft fruit like peaches and berries work best)
·  Sugar or honey to taste
2.     Pour into popsicle molds or use recycled materials as molds (deep ice cube trays, Dixie cups, small yogurt containers etc) and add wooden popsicle sticks (bought at craft store).
3.     Freeze and enjoy!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Slowly making the landscape edible

This year I planted many different edible plants purchased from Shallow Creek Nursery ( They specialize in hardy fruit for the prairies. I'm trying my luck at growing honeyberry (fabled to withstand frost to -10 C), black raspberries (they don't sucker like regular raspberries, so I planted them in my garden) and sour cherries (a Juliet). I was also seduced by the fanfare at health food stores and planted a Goji Berry.

Peppers, thyme, chives, mint, basil and sunflower sun on the deck.

Eona Grape- a green grape apparently good for eating fresh... we'll see. With mixed feelings I removed the Virginia creeper that was in this spot; It was a lovely plant, but infested with leaf hopper. In it's place I planted the Eona and a Stuben.

Coriander and Dill grow wildly together

Ever-blooming Strawberries are beginning to slow down production.

This Kiwi is a zone 4 that survived the winter! I have transplanted it to a sunnier spot and it is beginning to flower. I did harvest some small fruit last year. Very sour but apparently I can store them and they sweeten up. When established, this vine can grow up to 20 feet, though I'm curious to see how it will do with our shorter seasons. 

The black raspberries are on either end of the strawberry, kiwi and grape bed. The Kay Grey grape was a slow starter, but its beginning to catch up to its cousins planted in a different bed.

A Manitoba Tomato grown from seeds from Salt Spring Seed.

We planted this Dwarf September Ruby in 2006, the year our first daughter was born. We bought the tiny thing for $20 from a nursery that was transitioning into a U-pick. The apples are firm and refreshingly sweet-tart.

This large (12 foot!) unknown variety of Saskatoon has greatly increased its yields thanks to the Northline Saskatoon I planted this year. The berries have also substantially increased in size to about 15mm. 

In the hanging baskets I've tried Galina tomatoes and Spaghetti squash. The Squash is growing but certainly won't cover the pergola like it did in my dreams.

Square foot Garden Update

The square foot garden on my back cement pad is growing! Here are some pictures from July 12, 2009. In the case of most of the plants shown here, I purchased the seeds online from Salt Spring Seeds (

Colourful peas

red potato flowers

hungarian black peppers

There's an eggplant hidden in there somewhere.

Even corn!! This was an experiment and we'll see if we actually harvest anything...

kids harvesting snap peas

If' I'd realized how large potatoes would grow, I might have planted them in a different place rather then here shading the rest of the garden!

Here's our lettuce and carrot patch that must be weeded much more often than promised (thanks to the weedy back alley). I just harvested the first of many carrots, while I've already planted the spinach squares for a second time.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Birds! Not the Right Kind...

When I received Mom’s call, I was reveling in my backyard that overnight had become, on casual observation, a bird sanctuary. 
“Carissa? Just got off the internet. I was trying to identify the birds that have started eating at my feeder and it turns out that most of them are House Sparrows… (Pause)... it’s awful. They seem so sweet, but you have got to read some of these anecdotes.”
She went on to describe a bird that could kindly be called a bully.  The one site dedicated to propagation of Mountain Blue Birds describes them as follows:
You might think they're cute (some blue birders refer to them as "rats with wings"), but they attack and kill adult bluebirds, sometimes trapping and decapitating them in the nestbox and building their own nest on top of the corpse. They destroy eggs and young. At a minimum, they often harass native birds (especially more timid species like chickadees) into abandoning nestboxes.”
The site went on to show some pretty graphic photos of ‘the circle of life’.
Anxious, I went to identify the birds swarming my newly acquired feeder and it turns out my bird sanctuary is made up of House Sparrow too (plus the odd magpie). Here I thought I was helping my urban landscape ‘return to its roots’.  I want to encourage a natural, balanced habitat consisting of plants AND animals. Have I instead been helping one of the bullies of Birdland Edmonton get easy food and further propagate itself to the great expense of other species?
In addition, I noticed they’re eating my spinach and peas!
What to do?  I want to increase the number of birds in my yard. They eat insects, often will eat weed seeds, and enhance my morning coffee ritual.
John Janzen Nature Centre assured me that in Edmonton there are other species that compete with the House Sparrow, such as the native Finch, and so help control their numbers.  However the Wild Bird General Store hotline confirmed that the House Sparrow here in Edmonton has been harmful to native species such as house wrens, chickadees, and tree swallows. The gentleman recommended that birdhouses be monitored well to ensure house sparrows were not allowed to propagate.  "If unchecked, a breeding pair can grow to over 2,000 birds in two to three years." (Bird Barrier America, Inc.)
After researching this, I’ve decided that I want other species of birds at my feeder but I don’t want to further encourage the House Sparrows.  Here are some things that I’m going to try…
-       Change to feed without millet or cracked corn- instead switch to black oil sunflower. Thistle and safflower
-       Buy a Magic Halo for the feeder
-       Buy vertical feeders without perches (the man I spoke to at the Wild Bird General Store said these were the only thing to work for him).
If none of the above work, I’ll remove the feeder.  
One positive thing I've discovered through this process is the existence of the helpful House Wren. One woman writes, “Observers whose patience exceeds mine have counted over 1000 feedings to a house wren brood in one day.” These feedings consist of aphids, caterpillars, grasshoppers, and moths. Since the Wren only needs a 1” diameter hole for its house, one doesn’t have to worry about Sparrows invading, as they need at least a 1 and 1/8” hole.
As for an update on my square foot gardens, my veggies are growing and the sparrows and I are harvesting spinach. I now have a bobble head owl overseeing the squares, just until the peas grow larger and my spinach bolts!

P.S. Here are some of the resources I used:
-John Janzen Nature Centre- 780-442-1443
- Wild Bird General Store- 1-800-465-5099
- A resource for Blue bird Lovers-
-A resource for encouraging House Wrens-

Friday, May 22, 2009

Square Foot Gardening- completed boxes

Squash will grow up along the fence. One squash plant can be planted per two squares--- if you have a trellis for the plants to grow vertically!

Even after seven nights of below 0 degrees AND plenty of snow (is it really almost June?) here peak out peas, spinach, lettuce and beets. The pea teepees are lilac boughs. Only concern with these is they may just sprout too!

Beans will grow on this trellis... at least that is the plan. Potatoes and corn also share this small row that fit along the path to our garage door.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Reclaiming the Cement Pad with Gardens

“Ma’am, this is gardening, not rocket science. I think you’re making it way more complicated than it needs to be.”  Under my breath I cursed Mel Bartholomew, however I refused to let the clerk chide me off-course.  I kept calm and said, “Sir, I need five different types of compost totaling 300 litres.”
The adventure started in my back yard in my Alberta Avenue home. I’ve a large concrete pad next to my garage. It’s 25 by 15 feet and about 2 feet thick. I once mentioned to my neighbour that I hoped to jackhammer the pad up and plant a garden (it’s south-facing and sheltered). Nearly choking on his hotdog, he said,

“Do you know how much [insert past owner’s name here] paid for that?  It’s probably worth $10,000!” I was stunned… needless to say the pad has remained in our back yard, empty except to collect random bits of garbage from our renos and host the occasional basketball game.

But this year, I’ve got a plan. And this plan promises to produce more vegetables than I ever imagined from my small yard. I stumbled across All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew while scrambling after my toddler in Save-On- Foods’ book section. Here’s the basic gist:
1.     1. Build 4 x 4 square foot box(es) out of wood/bricks to a depth of minimum 6”. Boxes can be placed anywhere in the yard (over grass, weeds, gravel, CEMENT!!, decking).
2.     2. Cover bottom with weed paper (if necessary) and fill to depth of 6” with Mel’s Mix, a composition of:
a.     1/3 Peat moss (or coir substitute now available - Save Our Bogs!)
b.     1/3 Vermiculite (or Perlite though Mel doesn’t like Perlite’s texture)
c.      1/3 compost (if purchasing compost, 5 different types must be 
mixed to ensure variety of nutrients. If using your own, don’t worry about this bit)
3.     3. Build a grid distinguishing each 16 square foot and firmly attach.
4.     4. Plant seeds/plants according to Mel’s handy chart. The plantings are incredibly intensive, for instance one square foot can be planted with:
a.     16 onions or 1 pepper or 8 pole beans or 9 beets
5.     5. Water and Harvest and Replant.

Mel promises that weeding, tilling and fertilizing will no longer be part of my gardening experience. I liked the idea of a ‘free ride’ when it came to producing my own veggies.  So I bought the book and I committed to following the instructions (a tough proposition for someone who ‘skims’ recipes and hopes for the best).

It has taken six trips to the greenhouse/hard ware store to purchase materials and two days of building in the shop, but we now have three and a half beautiful boxes filled with
 growing medium and seeds. It’s been a lot more work and money prepping than I expected. The boxes each cost me: $22 for vermiculite (at Holes Greenhouse), $4 for Peat moss/coconut (Canadian Tire), and $20 for compost (I splurged and bought worm castings which put the price up substantially). So it cost me about $46 each to fill. Plus wood. 

I wondered if it was all worth it, until I started planting. The benefits so far:
-       1. I am not an ordered person, but I surprisingly can vouch for the grid. By seeing each square foot mapped out it’s easier to visualize the end harvest. For instance, I planted only 2 square feet of peas because I know I don’t want to harvest more than 16 plants at a time. Next week, I’ll plant 2 more square feet. 
-       2. The ease of access was brilliant. I could reach all parts of the box with little stretching.  If it was raised, people with mobility difficulties could easily garden again!
-       3. Experimenting with companion planting also felt simpler because I could visualize all the plants in that one area as more of a group than individual plantings. 
-       4. I love the prospect of how much food he promises can be harvested from that one box.
-       5. And, I’m using space I never thought I’d be able to garden in.
Now, I can only wait and see if Mel’s promises of bushels of organic vegetables grown on my cement pad come true. I’ll keep you posted.

If you're interested in more info, check out the following sites for great pictures and tutorials!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Lessons from the Original DIYers

I was floored. How had nobody ever told me?

Apparently, you can make your own yogurt.  And face wash.  And propagate roses without a specialized nursery.  And make soda crackers... like in your own stove--- at home...

For most of my life I've expected that most 'stuff' (both essential and convenient) required cash to be had. Like food and yarn and lip balm and art. Over the last few years I've been shocked and excited to discover that this is not the case. So I've begun dabbling with recipes and activities that will help me regain an understanding of, and appreciation for, the everyday things around me. Apparently there was a time when meat didn't come in Styrofoam, or veggies in cellophane, or beauty products in pretty bottles. There was common knowledge among community as to how one could live a rich, quality life without continually buying over-priced, greatly-travelled prepackaged forms of life's necessities.  In experimenting, I hope to gain a greater appreciation for the things I have, for the sacrifices the earth makes for my comfort; I hope to be able to live a little more cheaply and a lot more healthy than I have in the past. 

So it is with anticipation that I set out to re-learn some of the knowledge of the homesteaders. The original DIYers, perhaps. But I have a feeling they were DIYers with a great appreciation for their neighbours (who I hope to meet more of through this project!). 

This blog is the companion to a column I write for the Rat Creek Press here in Edmonton, Alberta, distributed to the Alberta Avenue communities.  It is meant to be a web-space where residents can share new ideas, respond with their own experiences or stories, or trade wares/services for the betterment of our neighbourhoods, planet, and relationships!

So, I'm happy to homestead with you!