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New Blog…

This is going to be the last post here at Rural Aspirations, for a variety of reasons.

With family life getting busier and new interests competing for my free time I no longer have time to blog regularly, and certainly not to maintain several blogs as I have off and on over the years. Each focussed on specific topics so as to attract readers from specific online/blogging communities. But my new blog will be one place that holds everything. Instead of being a representation of our family and lifestyle as a whole, it will be more personal: a place for me to reflect, process my thoughts through writing, and document the process of raising children with autism and building a homestead. I’m not even sure what I mean anymore when I use the word “homestead”, but I’ll explore that too.

My new blog is called Hideaway Farm, which is the name I’ve chosen for our little piece of paradise-in-the-rough. It isn’t necessarily the official farm name, but it’s my name for the farm and that makes the blog somehow more personal to me. I thank you for following along with the story of how we ended up fulfilling our “rural aspirations”. Maybe I’ll see you around the new place some time.



The 2012 Growing Season has Begun!

This past weekend we finally got some lovely warm spring-like weather, the kind that makes you feel like the last place you want to be is indoors (especially when “indoors” is a small metal box with few windows!). So, after enjoying a fabulous riding lesson on Saturday, on Sunday I left the kids to their own devices and headed out to my garden. I brought with me an old radio that I picked up from a friend a few years ago (it had belonged to her mother) for the express purpose of listening to while gardening, and I hauled out the extension cord from the garage. Rex Murphy, host of CBC’s Cross Country Checkup, kept me company and even though the topic was Canadian politics I couldn’t have been happier given where I was.

You may recall that last season ended with an experiment in soil building. I had tried two different methods of building up my raised (actually sunken) beds: the lasagna method and planting a green cover crop. Unfortunately the cover crop never germinated, which was predictable given the seeds were a year old and had been covered in innoculant all that time. However, I was so thrilled with the results of the lasagna method that I am putting aside thoughts of small seeded fava beans and winter rye and looking forward to piling up a new stash of paper feed bags this summer.

For a brief review, I layered paper feed bags, partially rotted compost, some partially rotted straw, and dried Big Leaf Maple leaves, covering it all up with soil dug up from the walking trails in our woods. As winter progressed it was hard to remember what it had originally looked like (see the post I linked to above) and it seemed to me that not much was going on. I had taken a quick peek a few weeks ago and it seemed that things were okay under there, but it was only Sunday that I headed out with a digging fork to see what I’d really ended up with.

Black gold, it truly was. Not only was there no sign whatsoever of the paper feed bags or the straw, but whatever critters had come to digest the lasagna I’d laid out for them had dug deep down, too. I found myself thrilling to the experience of putting my fork into our soil and seeing it go all the way up to the hilt with no resistance in most parts.

Even in the “shallow” parts I had a good 10 inches of softness. You must understand that I live in an area that was formerly scoured by glaciers, which left behind rocks, rocks, and more rocks. You literally cannot put a shovel into many areas on our property because there are simply too many rocks in the soil. I just about broke my back digging those beds two years ago, but even after that it was difficult to stick a shovel in there more than about 4 – 6 inches; there was little decent growing soil.

Now I was forking up a nice deep layer of rich, black soil (not forking over: I am using a no-till method where you simply “fluff” the soil by sticking in a fork and pulling it back a touch; and this only because the beds are still new). I couldn’t be happier. Last year I dragged home bags of sea soil (at no small cost, either). As I stood there staring at this lovely stuff I’d made from scraps, it astounded me that people would actually pay for what you could get for free and with virtually no effort. It took me one afternoon to make up the lasagnas, and all winter long as I snuggled indoors the bugs and micro-organisms were busy at work, turning our waste into nourishing soil that will feed our family.

I ended up raking the leaves (I was surprised at how many were still left more or less intact) and piling them in corners of the garden for use later. I sprinkled some complete organic fertilizer on the beds before forking them so that the powdery nutrients would drop down into the crevices. I plucked out a few garlic shoots that had sprung up from cloves tossed in the compost last year, chuckled at the avocado skins I could still see here and there (and the eggshells – they don’t seem to decompose very well), but otherwise the beds are ready for planting. But I was still wanting to hang out in the garden, where I’d ditched my wool hat and fleece sweatshirt only minutes into my efforts (first T-shirt weather of the year!). So I prepared another bed, one that hadn’t been lasagna’d, by running a small hoe through it. Since the area was fenced this year we had no wild animals tromping through and compacting the soil, so even though the soil isn’t as deep as in the other beds at least it was soft and easy to run the hoe through. Not many weeds at this time of year but I wanted to get a good start on things and I do so enjoy using a hoe.

After having done all that I was eager to actually plant something but hadn’t been to the seed store yet, and since I didn’t feel like driving that day I rummaged through what seeds I had left from years prior and picked out anything that said I could plant it now. I ended up with some Pac Choi, Spinach, and red leaf lettuce. Who knows if they will germinate well, since I can’t remember how old they are, but I just had to plant something! I put them in one of the beds I hadn’t “lasagna’d”, just in case they didn’t do well. I’m saving the good beds for the seeds I buy fresh this year (just did that today and got a bunch of great stuff from the West Coast Seeds rack at the local feed and garden store*). I can’t wait for the next warm sunny day to go out and plant some more food!

Unfortunately, the two beds where the soil is great are where I planted my tomatoes last year and I firmly believe in crop rotation, so this year’s tomatoes won’t get the best of the beds. However, last year the tomatoes did pretty well given the state of the soil last year, so even if they only do the same this year I’ll be happy.

And you can best believe that this fall I’ll be doing the lasagna on all five of my raised beds. I’ll save cover cropping for when I have a good deep layer of soil built up. Here’s to sunny days in the garden and growing your own food!


(*am I the only one who looks at flower seeds and thinks “what is the point of spending money on that if you can’t eat it?”; I’m either showing my lack of experience with gardening or I’m just a diehard farm girl who thinks anything we buy for the place should do a job)

Our first year of raising meat birds: what we’ve learned

Today I picked up our last batch of chickens from the processor: twenty-four yummy whole chickens have been added to our freezer stash. In looking back on this, our first summer of raising meat birds (or any kind of bird, for that matter), we’ve learned a few things about what we like and don’t like, and gained ideas about what to try next year.

We raised Cornish Rock Giants, which are basically the same type of bird used in mass-production factory farms. Ours actually got to see the outdoors, however. In fact they lived outdoors and enjoyed fresh air, sunshine, tasty grass and bugs. But the truth is they are, as many backyard chicken types will tell you, freaks of nature. They have been intensively bred for maximum meat production in minimum time. We got them as tiny, day-old chicks and by 8 weeks they were ready for harvest. This is good in terms of cost: a shorter duration to harvest means spending less money on feed. But I don’t think it’s very good for the chickens.

As many other people have reported, we noticed that our chickens didn’t seem to want to move around much. I’d often see them take a few clumsy steps as they attempted to balance their rapidly-growing bodies on legs whose bones couldn’t possibly keep up with those demands, only to drop to the ground as if they had just run a marathon. This most recent batch of birds went 9 weeks (because I didn’t make an appointment early enough) and by that time I noticed that some of them appeared to be having difficulty walking and one hen had what looked like a broken wing and perhaps a broken leg, too (she could not walk at all). She was perky and had less then 24 hrs to live so I just brought some feed to her and some water and told her it would all be over soon. I don’t like having injured birds: it may not affect the meat quality but that’s not the kind of farming I want to do. I couldn’t  help but think of the scene in the movie Food Inc. when the chickens were collected for processing and many of them could not walk. I want no part of that kind of “farming”.

I’d also heard that the mortality rate for these birds is high. We did lose 7 of our first batch of 20 chicks, all within the first week of life. I suspect it was a management and inexperience issue because we didn’t lose a single chick in our second batch. However, one of that second batch did die at around 7 weeks, apparently from a heart attack which is common for this breed. This sort of thing kind of makes you ponder the meaning of the word “healthy” – yes our birds were disease-free, but how healthy is an animal that can barely walk?

Another thing we noticed is that raising these birds the usual way (with a chicken tractor) is still really messy, despite the fact that they are outdoors. They eat huge amounts of food and thus generate great quantities of excrement. Despite having their tractor moved every 24 hours, within that time they would manage to coat the ground with waste, which then got all over their feathers on the underside. And my tractor was big compared to the recommended size for that many birds. They didn’t seem crowded in terms of space, but the tractor should probably have been moved twice a day towards the end to keep up with the poop – by that time all of them had wet, dirty undersides. But moving the tractor is a bit of a chore – I could tweak the design a bit to make it easier, but I keep thinking there has got to be a better way. Finally, because of the copious amounts of waste, the area around the tractor smelled pretty bad, and you could smell it wafting on the air all around the farm depending on which way the wind was blowing. Not pleasant.

Overall, we were left feeling like the chicken tractor was really just a step up from confinement operations. When I first looked into raising meat birds I asked people (on, which is THE place to learn about such things) why meat birds weren’t raised like layers – able to strut around a farmyard at their leisure during the day. Some people said there was no point because the things are so poorly designed for mobility that they don’t really bother ranging, even if given the space to do so. We would like to at least give it a try ourselves, as others had a better experience.

The bigger issue is predation. When the birds are small they are perfect prey for raptors, and we have several species of such hunting birds in our neighbourhood. How to keep them safe from overhead ambush is one issue we still have to think about. Normally chicks would be raised with adult hens and roosters, the latter serving as guards for the flock, warning others of approaching marauders and herding the women and children into the brush. Not only do the meat birds not have any experienced chickens around to protect them, but it’s doubtful to me how well they would respond to an alarm scenario anyway. They have had most of the “chicken” bred out of them, perhaps to make them more amenable to a life of confinement. I wouldn’t be surprised if they all just stood around staring stupidly at any rooster trying to warn them of impending predatory doom.

So one of my projects this winter will be to come up with a new management scheme for next year’s meat birds. I’d also like to try a few heritage meat breeds to see if we can find something a little less freakish. Growing them longer will mean increased feed costs, but perhaps that can be mitigated somewhat by allowing them greater access to forage. The chicks themselves are about twice the price of the commercial breeds, too. I don’t mind paying more for good chicken, however, so we’ll just have to do the experiment and see. Most people will tell you that the taste of the commercial breeds makes all the freakishness worth it, and perhaps we’ll find that to be the case (though we still believe there is much room for improvement). This is one of the things I’m really enjoying about our “back to the land” experience: you can read all you want but really you need to go out there and just do it yourself. That’s the only way to determine what works best for you, and as a bonus you learn a lot in the meantime.

The Planting Begins

It’s Spring here at the ol’ homestead and a number of projects are well underway.

You may recall last fall when I spent hours and hours hacking away into our rocky soil to create a series of six 25′ garden beds. I only got five of them done before I pooped out. My plan was to seed them with small-seeded fava beans to serve as a cover crop over the winter. However, I left it too late and a few days after I scattered the seeds it snowed heavily. They never germinated. This at least solved the problem of me having not completed the fencing around the garden – I got three sides of it planted with poles (small diameter trees, mostly alder, from our early land-clearing adventures) before winter set in and never did get it enclosed. Thus the deer and other animals were free to trample the soil.

Then, about a week or so ago, the weather passed some critical temperature threshold and everything in our field shot up at once. We are knee-deep in grass now…

…a far cry from what we started with. It looks lush and lovely. However, it also all but buried my “raised” beds (which, without the benefit of a cover crop, became sunken beds over the winter). Accordingly, I was feeling rather discouraged, and the late planting season encouraged me to procrastinate. But now especially that we are eating so many greens, it just seemed silly to be buying salad at the grocery store when it’s so easy to grow. And so I forced myself to stop procrastinating by attending an organic plant sale at a local farm. I’d bought tomatoes from them last year which, before the deer and elk ate them, were looking really good! So I went and bought 5 tomato plants, as well as some lettuce, broccoli, chard, and parsley.

I knew bringing them home that I would have to get them in the ground as soon as possible (only the tomatoes were in pots) so the next day I headed to the farm supply store. I got a few bags of sea soil to make up for the loss of “raised bed-ness” in my garden, and a couple 100′ rolls of chicken wire for the fencing. While I was there I noticed a (very) few remaining packets of West Coast Seeds in stock, so I grabbed some basil, boc choy, and salad mix. My first task was to trim the grass around the garden area, which I did using a gas-powered weed whacker. Then I went to work on one 2′ x 25′ bed. I had this grand idea of digging up all the soil, putting it aside on a tarp, and filling the bottom of the beds with some rotted wood, Hugelkultur-style. Lord knows we have tons of rotting wood around, and I hoped it would raise my beds up sufficiently. However, after the first few back-breaking shovelfuls I realized this was biting off way more than I could chew. I decided to save the Hugelkultur experiment for another season, when I would get a guy with a digger to come and help me out. Instead, I used a pitchfork and fluffed up the soil. Then I spread my sea soil on top and raked it in with some complete organic fertilizer a la Steve Solomon. Finally, I planted my seedlings. Here are the Before and After shots.

My next task was stringing chicken wire around the poles. I’ve never worked with chicken wire in my life, and this city slicker was in for some frustrating moments trying to unravel what turned out to be a factory error. I didn’t know this, of course, and assumed all chicken wire came tangled up around the roll like this. It wasn’t until my Husband calmly suggested I try the other roll that I learned the first one was faulty. The second came away like a dream and it was easy work to put it up.

I folded the bottom foot of the six-foot tall roll outwards and weighed this skirt down with heavy slabs of wood (leftover bits from when we had our logs milled). This is to keep out the rabbits and other digging critters. I’m also going to attach some ribbons of flagging tape to increase visibility for the deer, and also string a line of twine about 6 inches above the top of the wire, to discourage the more adventurous jumpers. I managed to get three sides done before I ran out of wire, but I’ve since exchanged the faulty one, so when it stops pouring and I can get outside again I will put in the remaining posts and finish the job. The trickiest part will be building a gate, and I haven’t quite figured out how I’m going to do that yet but I have some ideas. Meanwhile, nothing seems to have gotten to the seedlings yet, and my fingers are crossed that they won’t notice this little bit of haute cuisine amongst the lush field of clover and grass before I can get things sealed up. I’m also planning to “refresh” another bed, since it actually didn’t take long at all, and plant the seeds I bought as well as pick up some more as I come across them. It feels really good to know that all that hard work last fall was not in vain. Honestly, I don’t think I’ll ever do that again (I’ll happily hand over the money for a man with a Bobcat), but it was a good learning experience.

In other news, Husband has started wiring up the pig pasture, and I’ve been going out to clear away logs, poles, and other debris from the pasture area. The pigs are due here in about 3 weeks and we’re eager to see some little critters running around here again.

And, in other exciting news, when I went to the farm supply store to get stuff for the garden, I enquired about ordering meat birds (chickens). Turns out there’s a 3 week turnaround time, so I put in my order for 25 Cornish Cross chicks. I now have a deadline to get a brooder set up, and two weeks beyond that to get the chicken tractors constructed. With our increased meat consumption it will be wonderful to have a freezer full of broilers by end of summer.

I’m a Versatile Blogger!

I’ve just received my first Blogging Award! Toni over at BackYard Feast has sent me this pay-it-forward award. As part of my award I’m supposed to reveal 7 things about me that my readers might not know. Then I’ll pass the award on to 5 other bloggers. So, here it goes:

1. I have a sci-fi/fantasy paperback collection. I own the full series of the Belgariad and the Malloreon by David Eddings, as well as the other sequels and prequels. I also own the Shannara Series by Terry Brooks, and every Dragonriders of Pern novel by Anne McCaffrey. I first read these books as a teenager, collected them over the course of my youth, and still refuse to part with them. I actually have re-read each series multiple times, and will again, so I consider them worth the space on my bookshelf.

2. I played violin for 14 years. My father thought it important that we children learn to play an instrument. We couldn’t afford a piano and Dad had learned the violin as an adult so at the tender age of 3 I began violin lessons in the Suzuki tradition. The truth is, I hated it. I cried through most of my practice sessions with Dad (he’s a wonderful guy, but not a very patient teacher), and my series of tiny violins are still stained with the salt from my tears. But I had no choice in the matter. When I was in my early teens, Dad and I joined a local chamber music orchestra and I ended up enjoying that quite a bit. Playing with others was lots of fun, but the truth is that I was never really “into” my instrument. I didn’t play with any extra “oomph” because I really didn’t feel any. It wasn’t until I was 17 years old and starting University that I was finally able to quit for good.

3. I went to Catholic School. I’m not Catholic, though I was raised that way, and look back on most of my elementary and high school days as a colossal waste of time. However, there were some good things about Catholic School. Our class sizes (and the schools themselves) were very small. And I confess I actually really liked the uniforms. Being a girl who always shunned dresses I found kilts and sweaters to be very comfortable. It was a relief to not have to choose what to wear each morning. But it was still school, and with religious classes to boot. It was bad enough that my mother dragged us to Mass every Sunday (an utter bore), but we also had to do a Mass every Friday at school. Anyways, my first schism with the Holy Church was when I was around 9 years old and a new rule was passed that girls could no longer be alter servers at the Mass (one of the few things that made Mass tolerable for me). My little inner feminist was furious at being discriminated against simply because of my gender, and that was the start of a long and slow parting of ways.

4. I have a killer sweet tooth. I like to eat healthy, whole foods but my weakness is sweets. I love to bake but have to restrict myself because I gorge on my creations. I’ve recently weaned myself down from a heaping tablespoon of sugar in my morning (large) mug of tea to a mere teaspoon but that’s about as far as I’m willing to go. I have been known, on occasion, to buy a bag of chocolate-covered almonds or wine gums and stash them somewhere in the house so I don’t have to share (!). The only thing that keeps me in line is that I gain weight when I eat too many sweets (ah, for the days of pregnancy and nursing when I could support a chocolate-bar-a-day habit!).

5. I’m horse crazy. I’ve been obsessed with horses ever since I was very young. I used to hang pictures of them clipped from magazines and calendars on my wall. But growing up in the suburbs I didn’t get to encounter the real thing until I was nine years old and went to Horse Camp – a dude ranch where we got to trail ride (Western style) every day. I went to this camp for two weeks every summer until I was 15. When I was in my early twenties I began English riding lessons and soon became enamoured with Dressage. I competed as an adult amateur at the lower levels for a few years until I left University and moved to the States. I’d just taken up riding lessons again when I got married and pregnant and took a hiatus from lessons. I haven’t ridden since then but long to get back into it when I have more time. We don’t really have enough room on our property to properly keep a horse, but there are many boarding barns nearby and I dream of the day when I can one day ride again and take advantage of the amazing trails right on our doorstep. I’ve never owned a horse, a dream I’ve had since I was a very young child. One day I hope to fulfill that dream. Meanwhile, I still smile like an idiot and get all giddy whenever I see a horse – which is often now that we live in the country!

6. I suffer from vasovagal syncope. Which is a fancy way of saying that I faint easily. Over the last few years I’ve had some spectacular faints, often triggered by heartburn. I will also faint if I go too long without eating. Fortunately I can always tell when I’m about to faint and I lie down so I don’t do myself any harm. One time I fainted at home in the middle of the night after taking Benadryl but didn’t recover like usual. My husband had to call an ambulance and then wake my mother to come over and stay with kids so he could go with me. I fainted twice just getting onto the gurney. Being the scientist geek that I am, I kept asking the paramedics what my blood pressure and heart rate were, whether I was having any arrhythmias, etc. but they were busy trying to get me out of there and I was too busy passing out every few minutes to push the matter. I was trying to tell them that I’d taken Benedryl, but my husband grabbed a bottle of narcotic pain relievers left over from when my son was born by C-section (I hadn’t taken them since) and handed it to them. Being an urban hospital that handles a lot of drug abuse patients I couldn’t get anyone to believe my story of it being Benedryl until they finally did blood work and found no trace of narcotics. Meanwhile, the kids slept through the whole thing and Grandma brought them to see me the next morning, just in time for me to be released.

7. I’m adopted. I was 10 days old when my parents picked me up from the hospital. I always knew I was adopted and I’ve never been interested in finding out who my biological parents are. All my mother knew she told me, which is that she was around 21 years of age and lived in Montreal, apparently coming out to Vancouver to have me. I’m not interested in learning about my medical history either – too much of a burden and I’d rather take comfort in living as healthy a lifestyle as I can and let Fate do the rest. On my birthdays my mother always used to remind me that someone else out there was likely thinking of me, which was always furthest from my mind. As a result of my situation I’ve never placed much emphasis on “where I come from” or what my heritage is, which never fails to puzzle my Croatian husband, for whom one’s heritage has much importance both politically and culturally.

So now to pass the award on to five bloggers…

1. Jenna at No Name Farm/Ranch. She and her partner bought a plot of rural land, populated it with some cows and donkeys, and have been yearning to leave their suburban home and live on the land full-time. It’s been a rough road for them and yet she’s stuck with it, determined to make a go of it. That is dedication! And I recently found out she is horse-crazy, too.

2. Kim at Canadian Family Robinson. Kim is a member of our local homelearning community though I have yet to meet her in person. For the last year they have been heavily involved in building their cob house on their plot of Rural Dream land. I have followed their story back from the beginning and drooling over all the pictures, soaking up all the information, and dreaming of the day when we can do the same. I live vicariously through her blog and am grateful she is so good at posting pictures. They took occupancy just this past weekend, congratulations Kim!

3. Erica at Sweet Chaos. I’ve known Erica for ages, ever since my firstborn was a baby. She was one of the women who inspired me to homeschool and is just an overall amazing mama whom I admire very much. A couple of years ago they sold their Vancouver home, bought a used RV, and spent a year “roadschooling” – travelling all over Canada and the US as a family. They then purchased an acreage in Ottawa (where her husband hails from) and built a straw bale home. It’s just about complete now (just some inside finishing left to do). I have followed her story eagerly, as she is yet another pioneer who left urban life for the country.

4. Miranda at Nurtured By Love. I’ve never met Miranda but I feel I’ve known her for years. We are in the same provincial homeschool program and frequent the same unschooling discussion forum, and her blog has long been a great source of inspiration for me. Not just because she unschools her kids (who are much older than mine and, by all accounts, fantastic ambassadors for homelearning), but they live in a very small town in the wilds of the Kootenays, and they engage in many projects I find interesting and relevant. Whether it’s building an outdoor cob oven or managing the local wildlife that visits, I always learn stuff from her writing.

5. Chile at Chile Chews. She too had a dream to move to a more rural environment and take a stab at self-sufficiency. They finally fulfilled their dream only to have it shattered by incredibly restrictive zoning laws. Her determination, her honest moments when it all gets too much, and the way she has shared the incredible ups and downs of her journey so openly has been a real inspiration. It’s proof that seeking out this dream doesn’t always go smoothly.

First Project of 2011: forest trails

The weather is starting to warm up and spring is definitely in the air. I’ve seen crocuses coming up and the snowdrops are blooming everywhere. One fine day recently I got a hankering to head out and get started on some farm projects.

The first project I chose was time-sensitive, but had the added appeal of costing us nothing. I decided to get to work on creating a trail network through our woods, which compromise the bottom half (2 acres) of our property.

When we moved here last year (it’s been a year, woo-hoo!) we enjoyed walking through the woods using some deer trails. We didn’t know that, come summer, the woods would become impassible due to heavy understory growth, including tall stinging nettles and thick, thorny vines. I was determined not to have the same thing happen this year around, which was one reason to get to work on the trails.

The other reason has to do with our site design plan. Right now the woods appear as an amorphous mass of trees and shrubbery. It’s hard to get a feel for the different micro-regions within the woods, to map out where certain trees and plants are growing and where clearings exist. It is my hope that, by creating a trail network, I can mentally break the woods down into sections to make plant inventory easier, not to mention assist with adding some details to the lower half of our site plan.

The picture at the top of this post shows the tools I brought with me. The metal rake was used to sweep a path that could be clearly seen amongst the deep leaf litter and scattered branches. The hacksaw was used to cut away trees and branches that got in the way. I really enjoy using the hacksaw – it cuts through trees up to 2 inches in diameter with little effort and in quick time. It’s much easier to cart around than my chainsaw, makes far less noise, doesn’t require me to sweat buckets just to get it started, and I don’t end up swearing when the motor dies unexpectedly (yes, it’s a cheap chainsaw). Most of all, I don’t have to put up with the racket! Being in the woods is a peaceful experience for me, and a chainsaw kinda ruins that vibe. The final tool was my walkie-talkie so that the kids (who remained in the house) could stay in contact with me.

I started on the main trail that we use most often, and the work went quickly. I was fascinated by the root system of the stinging nettles I pulled up from the path; it was like a giant web running under the soil, and explained why the nettles have spread so thickly through our woods. I don’t want to get rid of them altogether as they are not only edible but fix nitrogen, thus providing a valuable service to building up the soil. But having them on the trail, or right along the edge, makes for an unpleasant walk in the heat of summer when covering up in protective clothing is not a desirable option. Here are the before and after pictures of a section of this trail.

A couple days later I went to work on establishing a new trail in another section of the woods. This process involved looking around for obvious paths that would require the least amount of clearing, using the rake to define the path, pulling up any salal, dull oregon grape, grass clumps, or nettles that were growing in the path, and sawing off any branches that hung in the way. This work went surprisingly fast as well, and I soon had a loop circuit that connected with a trail I made last year at the bottom of the property, as well as branching off to another part of the woods where I’ll start next time.

I really enjoyed the work, and will almost certainly enjoy the maintenance. That’s because the best thing you can do to maintain trails is walk them! The dog and I make a circuit on every walk now, and I can’t tell you how neat it feels to have my own forest trails. Walking through a forest is one of my favourite outdoor things to do, and now I can do it without even leaving home!

A Farm by Design

When we moved to this property in late February, what we found were four acres of land that had not been tended to in many years. Dense woodland covered most of the property, but it was not what I would consider a healthy forest. It hadn’t been managed well. In summer we found that the rampant stinging nettles (they grow over 5 feet tall) and thick stands of thorny bushes prevented us from even walking through that part of the property. Several of the trees were dead or dying, saplings were spindly and not thriving well. I’m sure given a few more decades Nature would fully reclaim these woods and turn it into a healthy, balanced ecosystem. But in the meantime we were faced with land that was basically useless to us.

Our initial idea was pretty simple: we’d clear most of the land, leaving a handful of mature maples and cedars, and turn it into pasture. We wanted to open up the southern exposure to bring in sunlight, views, and provide us with a place to grow food or have animals, or just enjoy the lovely sight of “fields and fencelines”. We started by clearing a section of land on the northwest part of the property, beside the house, to bring some much-needed direct sunlight to the house, and to visually open up the space around us. Summer brought an end to land-clearing work as the heat made it uncomfortable to wear proper protection, and the explosion of plant growth tripled the work involved. Our plan was to get going with more land-clearing when fall arrived, but I spent that time digging my new vegetable garden. With Spring not far away (it comes early here) it’s time to decide what projects will be tackled first, and how best to go about them.

I admit that there are some things about having wooded property that I don’t like. I crave light (living in a north-facing apartment a few years ago really depressed me) and I like open views. While I absolutely love the forest, and spend as much time in it as I can, I don’t want to live in the middle of one. Part of me was really looking forward to clearing the bottom acres so that we could have more sunlight and a lovely view of the valley below us. But then again, part of me was feeling a bit conflicted about ripping up this woodland. Healthy and useable or not, it is home to many lovely birds and I can see various habitats within it: seasonal small ponds, rotting logs that provide food and shelter for wildlife, dense leaf-fall that enriches the soil. We do have 160 acres of forest right next door to us, but it is a different kind of woodland, not the young transitory wood that we have onsite filled with alder, maples, and few evergreens.

Last week, Husband and I watched a BBC documentary called A Farm for the Future. In it, filmmaker Rebecca Hosking ponders the future of her family’s small Devon farm (UK) in the context of a world where fossil fuels may no longer be cheap and easy to come by. As she looks for solutions she stumbles upon the concept of permaculture and, skeptical at first, goes about interviewing and visiting with farmers who are putting the principles of permaculture into action to produce sustainable small farms from which they can make a living. This movie seemed to really resonate with my dear Husband, and I eagerly agreed to join him in further exploring permaculture as a design strategy for our own homestead.

While I was familiar with the word “permaculture” I didn’t really understand what it meant. I had picked up a gardening book some time ago, and all I’d gotten from it was a system of designing gardens around trees. I didn’t see the point, and I didn’t see the relevance to our situation. This movie made me realize that permaculture is much more than gardening, it’s basically an idea and a set of principles that one then uses to design systems based on one’s own unique situation. One concept that really appealed to Husband was the idea of a Forest Farm. It’s essentially a managed woodland in which edible plants are mixed in with other plant species that provide different roles: soil nourishers, nitrogen fixers, shade providers, leaf (mulch) providers, structural elements, medicinal plants, etc. In short, it was a whole new way to grow food: instead of using plots and rows and isolating the veggie patch from the rest of the property, these veggies (and fruits and nuts and herbs…) were integrated into the whole system, spread throughout the property based on their unique inputs, needs, and outputs. In this way one small property can have a lovely little forested woodland, open spaces for pasture animals, and beautiful garden spaces with all these systems working together.

For me, the immediate appeal of this idea was realizing that we didn’t have to tear down our woodland, reduce it to only a few trees, in order to enjoy our property. Permaculture could give us a system for designing our property so that we can have the things we want (some open spaces, sunlight, pasture for animals) without having to fight against Nature (weeding, tilling, drilling new wells or running miles of pipes underground) or destroying what we already have (which, while not useful at this point in time, nevertheless has taken several decades to get where it is today). So I very enthusiastically agreed with Husband to pursue the topic further, to learn everything we can about permaculture, and use that knowledge to design a homestead where all elements work together (water harvesting and flow through the land, animals, plants, wildlife).

We’ve only just begun to scratch the surface, watching all the permaculture movies we can get our hands on, ordering books from the library, etc. Our immediate goal is to create a design for our farm, a detailed site map of what we want this place to ultimately look like, and all the projects that will require. Only then can we set out on a lovely winter day, tools in hand, dog at our side, to wander over our land and perform the work necessary to achieve those goals, one step at a time. It’s likely that we will end up hiring a consultant to aid us in the design process, as there is just so much to learn and understand about all the systems involved (gardening, microclimates, water flow, greywater recycling, plant selection, plant grouping, etc). But before we do that we’re going to educate ourselves as much as possible so we can participate as much as possible in the design process. Hopefully, we will end up with a detailed site plan and a list of all projects necessary to complete the plan. It won’t all happen at once, and that is very okay. We’ll take each project as it comes, as budgets and time allow. I’m excited that we have found an approach to farm design that fits in with our values. And I’m even more excited that implementing the plan will be a process, a journey, one that cannot be rushed, one that can be enjoyed in stages. I can’t wait to see what our final plan will look like; in the meantime I’m creating a lot of lists!