the grand re-configuration plan – an update of sorts

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Some rain-soaked rocks

The rain and wind have conspired to turn my backyard into its winter monster-mud-pit state. Mud gloms onto my boots every time I wander out there creating a slippery mess. It’s not cold in a Canadian winter way, which is why I live where I do, but it makes being out there messy. Garden work is possible – and this is why we built raised beds. Carrots, leeks and celeriac still reside in the ground well above the mucky level, but mostly the beds are empty so I can enact my grand re-configuring plan.

We’re changing the beds from orderly rectangles into more of a keyhole shape – since we’re working with bricks, the end result will be more like two big c’s. This should optimize my growing space while reducing the weed-whacking-requiring paths. A cunning plan that requires me to move a lot of dirt and bricks, so hopefully we’ll get a few days of light-to-no rain in the near future so I can get to work.

I’ll post before and after photos when I’m done.

Scents from exotic lands [Exotic Tastes, Ecological Sensibility]

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My jar of pepper

Its that time of year again when we are bombarded with the message to buy, buy, buy every time we set foot near a store. I was going to write a slightly condescending post about the excesses of Christmas, filled with dodgy statistics like: if we cut back on wrapping three presents would save enough wrapping paper to cover 45,000 hockey rinks, or that if everyone saved half a metre of ribbon, combined we would have enough ribbon to tie a bow around the planet.

I started this post, but ran out of steam, besides I like wrapped presents with ribbons and can choose recyclable/reusable options. In addition to gifts, wrapped or not, the time of year is upon us when decadent treats come out. I assume everyone has traditional foods that with one whiff conjure up memories of celebrations with family and friends. For me spiced sweet baked goods do the trick, like: traditional fruit cake soaked in rum, buttery shortbread, gingerbread so dark one can almost see the molasses and steamed plum pudding (I have English roots). Each has flavours originating far from where the recipe was invented.

This is also the time of year people start planning escapes from our cold northern climate to warm, exotic lands. I regularly dream of traveling to exotic lands, but my student budget keeps me home, saving me from the conundrum of travel and a desire for ecological sustainability. As an alternative to travel to exotic lands, what about bringing bits of these worlds home? Spices – desiccated plant parts that provide a punch of flavour and scent that can dredge up memories of holidays past. They are light and long lasting, making them great candidates for long distance travel, the opposite of stuffing someone like me into a trans-oceanic flight where the experience of the holiday is fleeting. Instead of shipping myself to exotic lands, I bring exotic flavours to my house.

I love spicy food. My pantry is full of tastes my ancestors may have only heard of (I’m from a long line of ordinary folks) cumin, cardamon, star anise, fenugreek and more. In a corner, I have a jar containing enough peppercorns to make myself wealthy back in medieval times. Black pepper went from being a luxury item for kingly feasts and found in ancient Egyptian Pharaoh’s tombs to being ubiquitous – found in paper packages along side its salty partner in fast food joints everywhere. I’ve progressed to fair trade coffee, tea and chocolate but I have no idea where my pepper (or the rest of my spices) came from, nor the human cost of its production.

Recently, I watched a documentary about black pepper from Cambodia. The documentary centred around pepper from Kampot, along the country’s southern coast, and this region has grown pepper since the 13th century. Kampot has the right combination of rich soil and climate for this tropical vine to thrive and produce a unique tasting spice. In the documentary, the gangly British chef/host and his pretty sidekick visited a family pepper farm. In the 1970’s, under Khmer Rouge policies, the pepper was ripped up because it was a luxury crop, and replaced by rice paddies with forced labour. After the human horrors ended, this family (and I assume others in the area) went back and replanted their pepper. The work on the pepper farm was manual, the vines needed tending and the green peppercorns needed to be plucked from the vines. The green pepper was spread out on large screened drying racks and stirred every few hours. Once, the green orbs turned black and wrinkly it was packaged and shipped away. The farming process looked equivalent to growing grapes for wine – seasonally physical work. Assuming, they could get a fair price for their pepper, this family operation looked like something I’m willing to support.

When the gardener can’t garden

I stumbled across a blog, You Grow Girl, where the gardener, Gayla Trail, was kept from her garden by illness for a season. She describes the pain of not being in her garden and how some things died but much of the wilderness she created carried on. When she posed the question of what it means to be a gardener who can’t garden as part of her writing guild I decided to join in. So here are my thoughts:

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Rosemary flowers from my office window

From my home office, I can sit and look out on my garden (well part of it now that I’m expanding my garden space). The backyard is where I started when we moved into this house five years ago. Days after we took possession I was already planting lettuce seeds. It was early May and it didn’t take long until I had filled the existing beds with produce producing plants. Thinking back, I certainly didn’t always have access to land and was often living a nomadic life, but I almost always was growing something – and if I wasn’t growing something I was thinking about it.

The first garden that truly felt mine was a shady patch under a big leaf maple I claimed as a child. Bleeding hearts grew there naturally and I would carefully collect their tiny black seeds and spread them around with the hope more would grow. To add to the garden, my mom bought me already flowering impatiens which has left me with a nostalgic fondness of their cheery blooms even though now I prefer to grow vegetables.

Between that garden and the one I have now I tried many growing schemes, exploring all sorts of options that didn’t work. My balconies and window sills were always filled with potted food growing attempts. I know some people are very successful growing food in containers but I never was. Aphids would descend making lettuce, basil and dill to sticky to contemplate eating, while one forgotten watering session would lead to mass plant extinctions. Once, in a balcony-less apartment I had years ago I tried growing roma tomatoes inside, resulting in floor-to-ceiling leggy plants that never bothered blooming. But I kept trying.

For two years in a row, I signed up for a plot at the community garden near where I lived at the time. It was rural Alberta, a place with space – lots of it. All the plots were the same size, way to big leaving me overwhelmed. I was successful growing plenty of food, but both years the weeds took over. Threats to plow my plot under unless I got the weeds under control were issued forcing me to wrangle up my friends and press them into weeding service (which turned out to be fun).

On a micro-scale, while on an icebreaker in the Beaufort Sea a few years ago, one of my crew mates showed up ready to grow sprouts. I thought that was a fantastically original idea and my mind was set free to the possibilities of portably growing food; a thought exercise I still use when I can’t sleep. Under the right lights, I could try grow anything (especially in my imagination). Oh, and growing sprouts on a ship turned out to be an old idea – Sir Parry an Arctic explorer in the 1800’s grew sprouts for his crew to ward off scurvy (I haven’t found any record that his crew actually ate them).

I often ponder why I’m drawn to gardening, even when I’ve not been set up to do so. The answer is that I don’t know. Maybe its because I like working with my hands. Or maybe its because I get to witness a process that almost feels like magic, where with a little effort on my part, a speck of a seed grows before my eyes into a majestic plant.

remembering

me

A shot of me in my army days – in this picture I’m taking a break from plotting how to demolish a bridge.

Since my people as palimpsests post and some of the comments I got about it, I’ve been thinking a lot about the former version of myself that was an army officer. Plus, Remembrance Day typically gets me thinking about my time in the military and how grateful I am that I didn’t have to serve when we were a nation at war.

This morning I felt inspired to dig up some photos of me taken back then – I don’t have many because it was mostly a time pre digital cameras and generally I was too busy to think about taking pictures. Overall, my army experience was positive and I’m amazed I did what I did, but looking back at the person I was feels weird. All of that is still part of me and I have no regrets about any of it, but that’s not me any more.

Looking at the pictures of a younger me reminds me how disjointed and misunderstood I felt (perhaps a general malady of people in their 20s). At the time, I cared a lot about what others thought of me and the picture others painted of me was often wildly polar. Even though I was among the first Canadian women in combat arms, my experience was less about sexism and more about my introverted nature. My superiors (with some exceptions) regularly told me how my personality needed to change to be successful – I wasn’t ‘gung ho’ enough even though I volunteered for every ‘gung ho’ opportunity I could, but was never selected. At the same time my subordinates would tell me how refreshing it was to work for someone who truly cared about them.

Looking back, the biggest difference between the army version of me and me now is that I care less what people think of me. There’s a handful of people close to me who’s opinion of me matters, but for everyone else they are free to like or dislike me as they choose and I don’t care. I’m also content with my life now in a way that I wasn’t back then. I’m doing the work I always wanted to do and I’m with people I want to be with, plus now I get to putter around in my own plot of land and no one can force me to move across the country at a moments notice.

people as palimpsests and other geeky things

Warning – this isn’t a garden post

If only my work was this clear...

If only my work was this clear…

I stumbled across Wil Wheaton’s blog yesterday*. He’s not an actor I think much about; mostly I link him to the Star Trek: The Next Generation character Wesley Crusher who was generally disliked – by me too (I have enjoyed his more recent roles in The Big Bang Theory and Eureka). Now that I think about out it, I should have liked Wesley, because at the time we had so much in common. It was the late 80s and we were the same age. I was an air cadet in high school wanting to get into military college and become an officer – plus I was (and still am) a science fiction fan. Wesley, was also a cadet of sorts, wanting to get into Starfleet Academy and become an officer. Wesley’s fictional life was parallel to my own (minus the aliens and saving everybody). What turned out to be related was a podcast I recently listened to about palimpsests – ancient manuscripts over written by other manuscripts and how that idea can be applied to people in that our current self has over written our previous versions of self. So my teenage 80’s version of myself has been overwritten by other versions of me to the point I can no longer remember why I didn’t relate to Wesley Crusher.

As an aside, my teenage self over wrote my nature loving, garden keeper child self which is probably why I can remember what the garden looked like on the the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D – I can’t imagine it was featured in many episodes.

Back to my current self – Wil recently posted about the things he did to reboot his life for his 40s version of self that I related to (minus the depression and anxiety which I’ve luckily avoided). I’ve been in a tired funk, my PhD work has reached a non-exciting, but necessary stage full of ongoing drudgery. I’m near enough to the end that I spend a lot of time (often in the middle of the night) wondering what I’ll do when I’m done. I wonder if I even want to be a scientist. Graduation will result in a new version of self no matter what I choose to do. Plus, being around a small child with bountiful energy makes me wonder where my own energy has gone. Some days my tiredness extends to a brain fog which sucks out my creativity. I often think about all the projects I want to get done, but I don’t have the energy to get up and do them. So here’s my list, completely inspired by Wil’s list, of how I’m performing my own personal reboot.

1 – Get more sleep
I’ve always been an insomniac – at night my mind races, keeping me awake. If I’m not careful, my monkey mind takes over leading me into negative loops where I think up all the bad things that could happen but probably won’t (I do have tricks to deal with this). I’ve known for a long time that meditation can help racing minds, I just need to do it regularly. I got some relaxation herbal tea and epsom salts for my bath, both of which might help (at the very least, the placebo effect is real). I’m also going to bed earlier because sleeping in no longer happens here.

2 –   Exercise regularly
Since I became a mom the amount of exercise I get has dropped off. I used to do (and love) both Cross Fit and martial arts, now I don’t have time to do either. It has become incredibly easy to slip into a cycle of inactivity where I become achy and tired-er. What I can fit in is running and yoga/stretching, so I need to stay on the band wagon with these. Plus when I regularly run I sleep better.

3 – write everyday
For over 20 years I’ve kept a journal. When I consistently write in it I feel more balanced and creative ideas start to flow. I need to take the time to be consistent with my journal writing. I also need a creative outlet to vent into while working on hard stuff (currently my Phd). In the past, I’ve used writing fiction as a this outlet – I’ve written four novels this way (I’ve done nothing with any of them). So, last July I started puttering on a new novel which I’m going to keep poking at.

4 – socialize more with like minded people
I generally work alone, so I don’t get much workplace chatting. I’m also an introvert, so I’m happy working alone which is a bit of a trap as a lot of new ideas can come from others. I do get together with friends once a week to play board games and chat which is awesome. I need to find/create more of this kind of socializing as it can energize me.

5 – do something with my hands everyday
At this stage, my work is in my head with some reading, writing and computing. I need to balance this with working with my hands and creating something tangible. Besides, while working with my hands ideas churn somewhere in the bilges of my brain often resulting in interesting new thoughts. My garden counts towards this kind of work as does cooking and preserving food (hence all the writing about my urban homestead). Now that the rainy season is approaching, I need to keep that momentum going.  My answer here has been sewing, which I haven’t blogged about before. I’ve been making clothes for my husband and myself (my daughter insists of wearing items with animals on them and has bags of hand-me downs so I’m not making stuff for her at the moment). Sewing presents an additional double good in my view as I tend to worry about the origins of things and the garment industry is laced with poor worker treatment – if I sew my own clothes I don’t have to worry about sweatshops while ending up with clothes that fit.

Image is from here

* I think I’ll start following his blog as I’m finding his writing more interesting than the characters he plays.

Waking to a martian sky

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Guilty of causing a ruckus

I was rudely woken by a chicken kerfuffle this morning. The hens were going on as though Stumpy our resident raccoon (he’s missing his tail) was inside the coop. Sadly it was just after 5am. I stuck my head out the window, not a racoon to be seen and the chickens were showing no sign of abating the ruckus. I’d prefer not to annoy my neighbours, so I went outside and tossed some chicken chow in the run to distract them. It worked, the hens quieted down so I went back to bed.

I closed my eyes and relaxed – moments later the cacophony resumed banishing any hope of further sleep. Grumbling under my breath, I went back outside to see what I could do to shut chickens up.

As I got near the coop a Cooper’s hawk emerged from the cedar hedge. The raptor took flight, barely generating enough lift to miss the raspberries. The hawk must have roosted only a metre or so from the hens – and had been closer than that to me when my sleepy self tossed in the chicken food and I didn’t notice. Clearly the hens noticed the predator lurking near by.

As soon as the hawk was gone all the resident little birds, Bewick’s wrens, chipping sparrows and such, burst into song. Thankfully, the hens fell silent and got busy eating the extra food. I didn’t intend to be out in the garden that early, but it felt magical as though I’d been transplanted to a different planet.

For the last few days our sky had been blanketed with a yellowish haze – high level smoke from near by forest fires (not a Russian conspiracy of dumped toxic gas from the cold war that a random stranger I encountered on a hiking trail insisted). The weather man on the radio forecasted that winds will take the smoke away over the next few days. But for now it looks like we are under a martian sky.

While on my early morning garden tour, I looked straight at the just risen sun (yes I know I shouldn’t do that). The sun was deep red and muted enough it didn’t hurt my eyes to look at it. Pretty neat to see, assuming we’ll be back to our normal summer blue sky soon.

purple puff-balls and their pollinators

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purple puff-balls on the move

The chives are almost done their spring-time race to re-seed themselves – part of what I suspect is a cunning chive-y plan to take over my entire garden. Innocent-looking purple puff-ball tops are threatening to over run the strawberries and basil I planted either side of them.

I have more chives than I could ever expect to use – but that’s okay because the pollinators love their flowers. As I approach the chive domain I can hear the buzz of insects collecting their lunch. A traffic jam of honey bees, bumble bees and mason bees visit flower after flower. Other insects with odd shapes (that are probably bee flies) add even more diversity. One category of visitor is so small and fast I can’t really tell what they look like.

More than once by daughter (two and a half) has followed the buzzy cacophony to the chives. She is fascinated by them. If I look away for a moment, she’ll climb among the chives to get a good look. I love that her curiosity drives her to discover more about the world going on right under our noses – reason enough to spend time in the garden.

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A honey bee collecting pollen (they are hard to take pictures of because they never sit still)

I tell her that the pollinators have important work to do and that she is to look and not touch them (so far she hasn’t been stung). I point out the names of the ones I know – no doubt in a few years she’ll be telling me the names of the rest.

my imperfect world

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Kale flowers in the morning sun

We were ready to go a few minutes early this morning. My toddler’s sleep has really stabilized lately, allowing me to get the sleep I need – my whole world is better when I don’t feel like I’m dragging myself about in a sleep deprived haze. With the extra time, we went outside to see the chickens. The sun was just hitting the yard giving each leaf a rim of gold. The new growth looked almost magical in the light.

I still have a few beds full of last year’s plantings. I wasn’t fast enough harvesting kale buds so now my kale is now offering up their yellow flowers to the sun. I’ve been taking my time pulling up the plants because the flowers are so cheerful and I hope, by providing early food for the bees, the yard will get marked on their foraging maps. My broad beans are just starting to set out their pods – mostly they have won their winter race to grow faster than the slugs could eat them (my early peas lost that race).

In the golden early morning sun, my daughter and I stood by the purple sprouting broccoli munching on the crisp buds – a moment that felt perfect. Looking I saw the crumpled remnants one of my favourite red and yellow tulips in her other hand and remembered I prefer my imperfect world.

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My pretty tulips – one of the few plants I grow just because they are pretty (I can see them while working in my office)

 

should I eat bugs?

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Exotic grasshoppers are not on the menu at my house

While we were browsing in a Beijing market, my traveling companion spotted BBQ scorpion on a stick for sale (I know scorpions aren’t insects, but for food stuff they fit in the ‘insect’ category in my mind). Each stick held five scorpions glistening with sauce. The possibility of a novel experience took hold and she begged me to try scorpion with her – I didn’t*. Although that trip was years ago, recently, everywhere I look someone is writing about eating bugs (there is a lovely account of someone who plunged into bug eating here).

There are plenty of good reasons to substitute some of ones protein needs with buggy-goodness – many of which are outlined here. You can raise an insect based protein source in a small amount of space, perfect for an urban gardener like me. I have no problem producing enough leafy greens for my family and to give away, but I’m short on protein sources. Leaving me to wonder if I should revisit my decision to not eat bugs.

In the past for pet food, we’ve raised mealworms in the house. Mealworms are non offensive insects who happily live in an aquarium with a thick layer of bran. Their adult form is a flightless beetle – so they don’t escape. They’re dry, so no smell. They are also edible – I could easily throw a handful of meal worms into my morning smoothie, then blend them in – but I won’t.

Even though I intellectually agree with all the pros for eating bugs, I’m not yet ready to do it. I grew up in a culture where bugs are not considered food and even though I’m willing to eat all sorts of things, the thought of bugs as food still grosses me out. Perhaps some day I’ll work up the nerve to try eating insects or perhaps not.

How about you?

*Without me, my traveling companion went ahead and bought herself a stick of scorpions. On her first bite, scorpion-juice splattered down the front of my shirt – I never got the stains out of that shirt.

My brain has been full

Remember the Calvin and Hobbs cartoon where Calvin asks his teacher if he can go home because his brain is full? I feel just like that. For months, my focus has been on preparing for the candidacy exam part of my PhD. The oral exam loomed in front of me like an oversized camper on a narrow road. The other side felt impossibly far away. Then exam day came and went. I passed. That was about a week ago, a week I’ve taken off.

I had planned on reading the stack of un-read books that I’ve collected, I’ve started four and finished none (I tend to read multiple books at once). I thought I would write the interesting blog posts that have been cluttering my mind – nope, haven’t written anything. Mostly, I’ve puttered in the garden and reconnected with friends. My brain has been full.

So with nothing interesting to write about, here are some pictures of flowers in my garden:

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Nemophila menziesii ‘baby blue eyes’ – I have a thing for blue flowers

Borage

Borage – I planted these four years ago and they have self seeded ever since.

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A gift form my folks – I don’t know what this is.

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Purple poppies – seeds came from my mother-in-law

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The household little person has been out into the garden as well.