Pintos, orcas and tigers – oh my!


The view at Northbrook Farm

No I’m not adding to my home menagerie, these are all varieties of dried beans I volunteered to help harvest on the weekend (I’ve already harvested most of my own bean crop).  The day was actually a seed saving workshop put on by the local seed library covering growing, harvesting and processing beans for seeds (and food). The beans belonged to Rebecca Jehn, a local seed producer growing a wide variety of dried beans, the farm was Northbrook Farm, a beautiful location.


Dried beans ready to harvest

Rebecca walked us through the process of how she harvests dried beans – pulling up the entire plant then plucking each pod off by cradling the pod in your palm then closing your fingers around the pod before pulling it free of the plant – so if the pod bursts open, as dried bean pods tend to, the beans would just be in your hand and not scattered in the dirt. Each pod got tossed into a large paper grocery bag and later spread out to dry until brittle.


Bean pods in the threshing box, with someone (not me) operating the crocs-of-cleanliness

Next came the threshing box – a plywood box with sides slightly smaller than a door (alternately a heavy tarp would work as well). Along the bottom of the box strips of wood were nailed down in a herringbone-like pattern to provide texture. A bag of bean pods were spread out in the box and we took turns donning the crocs-of-cleanliness (designated for only this task, not mucking out the chicken coop) and stomping on the beans. With our weight, most of the pods would break open and spill their beans. We then used compressed air to blow out the pod remnants, the beans and chaff that remained were dumped into a bucket.


Spilling the beans to remove the chaff

From a high height, the bucket of beans and chaff was poured into another bucket in front of a fan. All the little bean pod bits got blown away, while the beans, because they are heavier, landed in the second bucket.


Beans on a screen letting sub-par ones and twiggy bits through

Next, the beans were put onto a screen that allowed any last bits of non-bean matter to fall through, this included the too-small-to-bother-with malformed beans. Spread out like that it was also easy to pick out any damaged, split or discoloured beans and discard them.

All that was left was beautiful dried beans – and there were so many different types of ogle over – agate pinto really intrigued me with its pretty white and brown markings. I loved the opportunity to just run my hands through so many different types (and it was nice to learn that I’m not the only one who likes to do that).


Agate pinto beans – apparently they are as tasty as they are pretty

This is not how I cleaned my beans, partly because I harvested them a bit early and they were only ’leathery’ as opposed to ‘brittle’. I spread them out on our living room floor and we watched TV, drank beer and opened each one by hand. I really didn’t mind my way, however if I do scale up the amount I grow I’m now armed with knowledge to clean them in bulk.

One of the more important things I learned is that my attention to separating by bean varieties is not really necessary for what I’m trying to do. Rebecca grows her beans in long rows – one variety follows another in a single row and different varieties are in adjacent rows. Yes, occasional crossing happens which can add the the genetic diversity and if the resulting bean is significantly different than expected it can be removed. I’ve been obsessively picking over my beans removing any that is sub-par, so removing oddballs would be no big deal especially since it would mean I could grow more different bean varieties.

Introducing UF-1510

P1090420My significant other/ co-conspirator and I were brainstorming while sipping coffee in bed this morning (it was a rare morning our household little person slept until 7am). What to call our mirco-farm was the topic. It seems urban farms are often named like the local to me Mason Street Farm or the further afield Moonlight Micro-Farm or the Micro Farm Project. There is even the awesome Garden Pool project.

I think we’ve crossed a line between gardening and really small scale farming this year as we are now producing a significant amount of our own food on our urban lot. Currently, food production is mostly contained in the backyard, but expanding in both physical space and in taking over this blog. I spend much of my free time working the soil, thinking about what to grow, photographing vegetables and writing about my efforts. So, I’ve concluded that my food producing project should have a name, but what?

It’s no secret I’m a science fiction fan with a fascination with both real and imaginary biodomes. Plants grown in space are right up my alley, be it lettuce grown on the real ISS or forests preserved in space in the B-movie Silent Running. I’m also drawn to names with numbers in them like the local brewery Category 12 or the TV show Warehouse 13. I was recently drawn to the novel Station Eleven at the bookstore for the same reason (since it was set in a post-apocalyptic world I bought it and it turned out to be awesome).

We threw around ideas for almost an hour. We take turns making coffee at 6 am mostly because I have delusions that I’ll productively use the time to write or exercise – I almost never do. UF-1510 is what we settled on, where UF stands for urban farm. I was sooooo tempted to go with urban farm operation, but decided that was going a bit too far and I reserve the right to change my mind on the name at any time.

Beginning of September Garden Update


The grass is getting green again – I’ll have to weed wack around them soon.

The harvest has begun big time around here, my high calorie crops are starting to be brought in. Although summer isn’t technically over for a few weeks, it feels over – fortunately fall is my favorite time of year.

In the last few days we’ve turned a weather corner back to rain, technically I do live in a rain forest so it is rain we desperately need. I suspect it’ll get warm again in the fall, but my tomatoes plants couldn’t deal with the rain so I went out last night and brought in all the green tomatoes and pulled out the plants. I left the cherry tomato plants as they seemed to be fairing better. My dining room table has taken on it’s seasonal roll as a produce counter filled with drying beans and ripening tomatoes. I get a weird pleasure just looking at the abundance there.

To update our household wasp trapping – my husband took down the trap and counted them. Since we are science-y around here, it didn’t surprise me at all he wanted to sit down and count them. So the tally is: 875 wasps caught in about a month. I’m amazed there were that many visiting our deck! Now, there must be a few empty nests around. We also caught 3 bald-faced hornets, at about twice the size of a wasp and twice as aggressive they make particularly nasty visitors. Sadly, a honey bee got caught – I assume the bee got caught up with the wrong crowd.

In other news, I harvested my first ever ripe melon last night – it was amazing!


Rain drops on the leeks


Shungiku an edible chrysanthemum enjoying the moisture – these are surprisingly tasty and make a great winter green, plus they are pretty when I forget about them and they flower


My oca is turning into a very well behaved plant as it hasn’t sprawled into other plant’s space. With the decreasing daylight hours, the oca should start setting tubers. Harvest will be later this fall.


This is ‘king of the north’ sweet pepper – I should be able to harvest these soon. I’ve already harvested baskets of hot peppers.


This is a ‘Mexican sour gherkin’ – technically not a cucumber, but closely related to them. I procrastinated planting these, so they are only just starting to fruit. They are fantastic, a single bite of lemony-cucumber goodness.


I’m optimistic my cherry tomatoes will keep producing for a while yet.

Revenge on the Wasps


One of the villains hanging out in the cilantro

“It’s a trap!” – Admiral Ackbar from Return of the Jedi

Sadly, summer is clearly winding down, days are noticeably shorter and dew has returned in the morning. Our calorie dense winter crops are starting to mature (more on that later). Spider webs appear over night across seemingly impossible divides and I despise walking into spider webs. I suspect all the spiders will migrate inside the house for the winter – the spider equivalent of heading to Florida. I don’t mind spiders inside the house as long as I don’t see them – the ones I see get evicted. Wasps are a different story.

The wasps started getting desperate for food early this year swarming around the yard and house looking for grub. They rely heavily on smell to find food, their noses leading them directly into the kitchen (unfortunately, we don’t have screens). Regularly, we were swatting one or two yellow-and-black banded bandits. Their bold colouring a warning of their sting. Unlike a bee, a wasp can sting more than once and they don’t hesitate to do so (a bee’s stinger gets ripped out when it stings, which is fatal to the bee). Plenty of animals eat wasps like other wasps, spiders, dragonflies, beetles, moths, crabs, badgers, frogs, fish, birds, skunks, bats, rats, mice, etc. So wasps do fill a ecosystem niche – but I have limits to my tolerance of them.

While making applesauce with my little helper, I counted twelve wasps buzzing around her head – that was the last straw. I hate the idea of poisoning my yard or home, so we settled on using a wasp trap. Within a day we caught dozens (I’m stunned there were that many around). Now the trap is so packed, wasps have to force their way in – and we are still catching them.


The trap after about a day

As a tangent – people also eat wasps, or more specifically, wasp larvae. I’ve read (as I’ve never met anyone who eats insects) the larvae taste great fried in butter, further support to my theory that butter can make anything taste good.

Introducing Licorice and Stout


Licorice the hen

My Sunday morning began with a trip to collect two new hens. I went with pullets (hens who are old enough to start laying eggs) this time. As cute as chicks are, they are messy and take a lot of work. My husband is clearly longing for fall beers since he suggested Licorice and Stout as names. They’re just an industrial cross, not a quaint heritage type.

Right now, the two new hens are relaxing in an un-used rabbit hutch, tonight they’ll go in with the flock (Butter, Kung-pow, Salt and Pepper). Hopefully, in the morning the hens will all wake up and assume the two new ones were always there.


Stout, the other hen

What is wilderness? or a world in a bubble


Miniature wilderness at the base of a bonsai tree

Thinking about lettuce in space combined with the general laziness associated with late summer, reminded me of this post which I originally wrote for the sustainable collective.

Magenta fireweed flowers under a blue northern Alberta sky – a stunning backdrop for oil company propaganda (I don’t remember which company). The oil company claimed this was restored land after oil drilling had finished – but northern Alberta isn’t a homogeneous field of fireweed. Fireweed, a pioneer plant, is part of the first step in a succession, that, if conditions are right, might result in the northern Alberta ecosystem that was originally stripped away. Maybe the oil company is doing more to restore these ecosystems and just chose to film in a swath of fireweed because it is pretty. I don’t really know, but it did get me thinking about our meddling in the natural world.

Meddling with our environment is what people do, yet we maintain an idealized view of an untouched nature out there somewhere. Emma Marris in Rambunctious Garden suggests, “We imagine a place, somewhere distant, wild and free, a place with no people and no roads, and no fences and no power lines, untouched by humanity’s great grubby hands, unchanging except for the season’s turn.” She goes on to point out that if such a place ever existed, it no longer does.

Thinking hypothetically, if we have crossed a threshold where we’ve damaged the earth so badly that it can no longer support a natural ecosystem, can we recreate wilderness? … well not from scratch. Closed biospheres have been an active area of research since humans first ventured into space and still is. The experiment conducted in Biodome 2 in the early 1990’s demonstrated that we can’t yet create a complex, human-sustaining world in a bubble. As Rebecca Reider describes in Dreaming the Biosphere, Biodome 2, “ …is not simply a garden in a greenhouse; it is, perhaps, the most highly engineered wilderness in the world.” To create this wilderness, several working ecosystems were carefully crammed into a small space. Everything from rainforest trees to buckets of swamp dirt to hummingbirds and more were sourced and shipped in. Then eight humans stepped inside and sealed the door, becoming stewards of this created world.

The eight humans were necessary because without constant human intervention the engineered ecosystems would evolve into something else. Within the sealed bubble of Biodome 2, growing pains included acid rain from high carbon dioxide levels to low oxygen as curing concrete bound to it. While the Biodome 2 sealed experiment ran, it never became stable, and ultimately doors were opened because toxic gases were building up inside. Maybe, eventually, someone will figure out how to build a stable ecosystem in a bubble big enough to include us, for now, we need to work with the wilderness we have.

Since we’ve meddled in every ecosystem on the planet, perhaps we can take a step back and plan our meddling to leave space for nature. Ecosystems change; that’s always happened, but change needs to happen at nature’s pace – and there needs to be room for nature to be complex, as complexity is the path to resilience. Emma Marris argues that we need a new way of seeing nature that includes everything from old growth forests to the weeds that push up through asphalt. With this view, the mossy ecosystem erupting from a concrete crack counts as wilderness.

In my view, a solution (as there are an infinite number of possible solutions) is to make more space for nature – let a pocket of lawn go wild, plant berry producing bushes for the birds or flowers for the bees. Nature can flourish in little spaces.

Space salad


A red romain from my garden, which is safe within planet earth’s gravity

Sitting out on the deck last night looking for meteorites, we spotted the space station passing over head. What I didn’t know at the time, as the astronauts passed over my garden they might have been tending their own garden. Two of my favorite things are growing vegetables and space exploration – normally worlds that only collide in science fiction, but now for the first official time vegetables have been grown then eaten on the space station.

They dined on a salad made from a red romain lettuce called ‘Outredgeous’ one of the lettuces I grow –  the big difference is I don’t have to worry about my soil floating away and no one is telling me to clean the leaves with disinfectant wipes.

To deal with the soil, or in this case growing medium, floating away issue and other space complexities, ‘pillows’ have been designed to house each individual plant which is put under LED lights emitting optimal growing wavelengths in the ‘Veggie’ plant growing system. The first harvest was shipped back to earth to test if it was safe to eat. For round 2 the lettuce was given 33 days to mature before being converted to salad (some was saved for further earth-based testing).

I’m curious what’s next up to be grown on the space station.


August garden update


Garden on the first of August.

The arrival of August meant I took a week off, went camping and did a lot of nothing. The garden is currently at its peak producing more tomatoes than we can eat – the easy solution is to give some away and freeze some. I’m currently pondering making ketchup (I’ve made it in the past, homemade ketchup is fantastic).  I also have an abundance of basil, so I’m trying my hand at fermenting some to save it for winter tastiness. And soon I’ll be buried in hot peppers.


The original plan was to build a greenhouse over my beds of peppers, melons and eggplants. We’ve just started greenhouse construction, but the hot weather has meant I’ll still get a fantastic eggplant harvest.


Soon there will be melons to eat!


These little lanterns are cape gooseberries that aren’t ready yet. We’ve done well with our berry production this summer – even considering the raccoons keep eating the ripe strawberries. We’ve had berries to eat since May, currently we are on to blackberries and ground cherries. Soon, cape gooseberries.


This is a flower from my tepary beans – pods have formed, so we may get a few (these beans like Arizona style heat, so they were the least likely to do well in my yard). I’m having mixed results with my bean growing experiments, when I harvest I’ll post my results. Unfortunately, the beans I’m growing in my front yard have been heavily munched on by deer – so I’m not optimistic what’s left will produce much. On a positive note, many of my other beans are doing great.


Above ground the oca appears to be thriving – they won’t start forming tubers until the days get shorter. It will be a while yet until I can dig and see how they’ve performed.


Magenta spreen, a heat loving green, is doing well for me and is awfully pretty. I’m also growing New Zealand spinach as a summer green, it’s growing well but I don’t like it. I’ve been harvesting armloads to feed to the chickens. My final heat loving green is Malabar spinach, which has been really slow to get growing.


Winter greens have been planted. I’ve shaded them mostly to prevent the seedlings from drying out too much. There is kale, collards, mustard greens, chard and chicories in here. I also have a bed of leeks, carrots and beets happily growing.


Finally, here is a shot of my garden helper hard at work.

connections through noodles


Rusted vats for rendering whale fat in Kekerton Nunavut

After almost 4 years of working on it, my first peer-reviewed academic paper on the oceanography of Cumberland Sound is about to come out. One of the things I’m discovering about academic writing is there are all sorts of interesting parts that aren’t science and therefore left out. On that note, I thought I’d branch out from my garden and re-post an article I wrote a few months ago that originally was posted here.

Everywhere I go, someone has been there before me and probably eaten pre-packaged noodles. I don’t have anything against these noodles – they make a quick meal and even after looking at the ingredients I still find them tasty. Pre-packaged noodles also make an interesting case study on the interconnectedness of our world out to the remotest places.

On my first trip to Cumberland Sound on Baffin Island, I felt like I was heading to the remotest place on the planet – a place so remote it took me five days of travel within Canada to get there. The purpose of my trip was to measure water properties beneath the sound’s surface and for days on end, that’s what I did. On a rare afternoon off I went ashore to stretch my legs at Kekerton, an old whaling station that is now a national historic site.  Abandoned in 1923, the station’s heyday was from 1850 to 1880 when both American and Scottish whalers worked from adjacent camps. The whalers hunted bowhead whales, and when the whale numbers declined so did the whalers.

Near constant winds scour the black lichen from the white rock that dominates the landscape. As I walked along the shore, crystals in the exposed rock sparkled all around me, with a subdued glitter not found on the Las Vegas Strip. Ludwig Kumlien, a naturalist from the Smithsonian who overwintered in the region in 1877 miserably described his winter this way: “We lost much of our wonted enthusiasm during the long, dreary winter and found rest only in continual work.” I’m fortunate that I can leave my instruments in the water over winter and do not have to stay to monitor the equipment.

A short walk inland, the station was nestled into a patch of tundra. A few rusty cauldrons and decomposing structures amongst the stunted flowers and red mushrooms were all that remained. Bone fragments littered the ground. A bowhead whale skull dominates the shoreline and I found what looked like a walrus skull. Animals, hunted for profit and subsistence were brought here to be butchered. Kekerton whaling station was built and inhabited in a pre-plastic world and now the remnants are breaking down, returning to nature. Even in the slow Arctic environment, the station will eventually be erased.

While wandering around what I thought was a remote landscape, I found a Mr. Noodle bowl wedged between some rocks by the shoreline. The styrofoam bowl was faded but in good shape – it clearly didn’t drift in from the ocean. It had come a long way from its origins at a factory in Huizhou, China, roughly ten thousand kilometres from this abandoned Arctic whaling station. This Mr. Noodle bowl, along with many others, was shipped across an ocean, then trucked to grocery stores across the continent. Someone browsing aisles of food decided a Mr. Noodle bowl was the right snack to bring on a trip to Kekerton. That person may have sat on a rock, munched on noodles, pondered the view, and tossed the bowl away at the end of the meal.


Litter found near Kekerton – it was too far out on a rocky outcrop for me to reach it and put it in the garbage.

In our industrial world, we litter with objects that take generations to decay. A Mr. Noodle bowl will need more than a million years to break down. What that Mr. Noodle bowl showed me was that even though I felt I was in a remote place, no place is truly remote anymore. One way or another our world is intimately interconnected.

Things to do with chives plus a surprise


Chives past their pretty stage

As I’ve mentioned before, I have happy chives. Come early spring, these chives burst forth with new growth before most everything else. All it takes is a few moments outside with scissors and I’m ready to sprinkle my scrambled eggs with chivy goodness. I’ve gone so far as to stop growing green onions and use chives instead. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), since they tend to spread, the amount of chives currently growing is way more than the amount of chives I use. So what should I do with my excess chives?

Digging all but one small clump up and adding them to the compost pile appeared to be the winning solution for a while – but I never got around to it (occasionally laziness pays off).

With their puff balls of purple on stalks of green, chives do have their moment of beauty. And as soon as they bloom, they are swarmed with pollinators which I consider a good thing. But, their flowers don’t last long, soon they dry out and resemble yellowed tissue paper – not so pretty.

A few days ago I went out to dead head the chives with the hope that I’d get more harvestable leaves. With the first flower plucked, little black chive seeds spilled out (into my strawberry patch so no doubt I’ll be weeding out new chive plants later). I have no need to start chives from seed as they easily divide into new plants, but come mid-winter I like to grow sprouts and chives make lovely sprouts. Their seeds are only viable for a year or so and often hard to come by for sprouting purposes.


The black chive seeds are ready to be shaken out

By the fist-full, I shook the flowers over a large bowl resulting in 75g of seeds (ironically, my last bag of chive seeds for sprouting was 75 g). Now I’m set for a winter of chive sprouts – and I’m still hoping they will put out new green growth for me to harvest.

Now for the surprise:


A baby goldenrod crab spider amongst the chive seeds

It also turned out that the chive patch was home to lots of little spiders. I kept having to stop shaking chive flowers to rescue spiders out of the bowl, then I spotted an adult – a goldenrod crab spider laying in wait for an unsuspecting honey bee. She was one of the prettiest spiders I’ve seen in the yard and patient enough to let me get some good photographs.


An adult goldenrod crab spider (probably female) waiting for pollinator prey

This is not the mother of the little spiders I found as after a female lays her eggs she stands guard over them, without eating, until she drops dead. As a cool piece of trivia, depending on the flower a goldenrod crab spider is waiting in ambush on, they can change colour between white and yellow, albeit much slower than a chameleon changes colour as the yellow pigments have to be fabricated taking 10 to 25 days.


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