Friday, November 19, 2010


Every year when October arrives we start the discussion about when to start using the wood stove meaning, when do we start heating our home.  This discussion usually takes place while we are stacking the firewood on the back porch.   Jerry always says, “No fire until November 1”.   I usually start whining about the first week in October and every time the temperature dips to 19C inside.   In the four years we have lived here we have not made it to November 1 without a fire but this year we came pretty close.  Thanks to a warm October we only had the wood stove on about 6 times through the month and most of those times were for short periods – a morning fire on a chilly rainy day and a few chilly evenings to help dry the laundry.

Even half way through November we still have not had to have the wood stove working 24/7 thanks to the solar passive feature of our home.  On a partly sunny/cloudy day like today it is 20C at 10:00 a.m. and will likely stay at that temperature without any heat at all.  The fire will be on in the evening to help maintain temperature and we will likely wake tomorrow to the house still at 19C.
On a sunny day in January and February when the sun reaches 20-30 feet into the house the temperature can often be a very balmy 24 -25C without any additional heat.  Our favourite spot in the winter is the window seat on sunny days where we can soak up the heat while reading and taking in the frozen land outside.  

On cloudy days the super air-tight, energy-efficient Pacific Energy wood stove is on all day and we use the radiant floor heat to come on in the middle of the night when the fire dies down.  The floor will feel warm in the morning and will help maintain the temperature at 18-19C throughout the night.
The solar passive feature works so well I am dumbfounded that builders and the general population never seem to consider this when building homes.  Time and time again you see major windows on the north sides of homes, garages facing south or homes with lots of windows facing south but no overhang to keep it from overheating in the summer.   It really should be the first consideration in the layout of surveys and in custom building if we are serious about becoming more energy efficient. 

The best part is that the sun does double duty – while it is heating our home it is also hitting the solar panels and creating our electricity – and all for free - what could be better?
The result of that free sun? Our monthly energy costs are a $30 hydro bill and propane costs of $75 a month.  Our wood is free as Jerry has a deal to clear out dead wood from a property close by but if we had to buy it we would use approximately $500 worth a year so our total energy costs would be $145 a month instead of the current $105.
                                                                     Thank you Sun!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Sweet Potato Bonanza!

Our friends Cam and Michelle (Cam Mather is author of “The All You Can Eat Gardening Handbook”, the best gardening book of all time!), have grown sweet potatoes for the last couple of years and we have been insanely jealous of this ability.  I whined and begged and Cam finally relented to share his secrets last year – he gave me some vines from his plants to keep in the house through the winter and gave me the name of the Sweet Potato Bible – “Sweet Potatoes for the Home Garden with Special Techniques for Northern Growers” by Ken Allan.  Thank you Cam and thank you Ken!

Slips planted in plastic in June 2010
Sweet potatoes require a fair bit of planning to grow in the North here in Ontario – the soil must be warmed with plastic sheeting starting in April and the potatoes do not grow from tubers the way regular potatoes grow.  They only grow from slips which come from keeping vines through the winter or letting slips grow from the tubers from last years’ harvest and cutting and rooting them in the spring. 

Despite the work involved to get them into the ground, once they are in there is little work involved.  They are a tropical plant so love the heat and we had plenty of that this summer.  The vines spread over a large area and the vine produces a very pretty lavender/purple flower.  This is the same bed  - 6 plants in September before harvest.

So, the results?  We could not wait any longer and dug up four plants last Thursday.  What a huge crop!  One of the largest ones was 14” in diameter!  Unfortunately, a mouse had been nibbling on it for probably an extended time so only half of it was left.  But we got at least 7-8 sweet potatoes from each plant and filled our huge harvest basket with them and we still had another 8-10 plants to dig up. 

Today we dug up another 6 plants and found even bigger potatoes - 15" diameter width and 19" diameter length wise and about 4 pounds.  We have probably dug up about 50 pounds from the 10 plants.

The Big One
It is a bit like an archeology dig because the sweet potatoes are not always right under the plant - in fact we found many right outside the beds and many feet from the the original plant.  You also do not want to scratch them up too much so it is best to use hands where possible.

A grouping of sweet potatoes around a plant
Once you dig up sweet potatoes they need to be cured if you want to store them and again this is a bit of work – they need to be kept at 85-90F with 80-90% humidity for 5-7 days.  Not easy to figure that out in September in Ontario.  We have converted a large appliance box with a small space heater inserted into the side into our curing shack.  By adding a jug of water and keeping the sweet potatoes in paper bags we hope to retain the humidity required to cure them for storage through the winter.

The second harvest
Sweet potatoes, by the way, are a super food and should be incorporated into everyone’s diet as often as possible.  We love them in Sweet Potato Salsa and one of the easiest ways to enjoy them is to make mashed potatoes half with regular and half with sweet – they end up to be a gorgeous golden colour.  Perfect for the Thanksgiving table.

Friday, August 13, 2010

We are in Harrowsmith!

Shortly after we moved into our home our friends Glenn and Libby gave our name to the editor of Harrowsmith Country Life magazine as a potential feature.  Their straw-bale house had been recently featured in the magazine. Our house was still pretty rough those first years with no landscaping so we put off having them come out.  Finally, last year we felt the house was "finished' enough. The pics you see in the article were taken last August and some in September as it was rainy the day of the first shoot.  I am amazed at how much the plants have grown in the last year! It was exciting doing the photo shoot and lots of fun doing the interview with Tom Cruikshank.  Look for the August issue on newsstands this week. One of the features of our house that always gets a lot of attention did not make it into the pics in Harrowsmith - our tire weavings that grace the front and side of our garage.  The weavings are done with 40 ATV and bike tires taken from the landfill and assembled by Carolyn Butts of Bon Eco Designs in Tamworth, Ontario.  
Her website is

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Our Baskets are Overflowing!

It has been a great summer for growing veggies in Ontario.  Lots of heat with pretty consistent rain.  We have had dry spells and have certainly been watering more than last year but all in all the food yields have never been better.  It is a full time job keeping up with watering, weeding and harvesting.  Not a lot of time left for blogging! Here is the list of what we grew and are growing this year:
Lettuce - 4 varieties
Spinach - 2 varieties
Tomatoes - cherry, plum, regular
Green Peppers - jalepeno, green
Onions - red, cooking (200), green
Green Beans
Bok Choi
Butternut Squash
Spaghetti Squash
Potatoes (200 lbs)
Garlic (300 heads)
Sweet Potatoes

Whew!  No wonder I have no time for blogging!  We also have raspberries, black berries, grapes, strawberries, currants, gooseberries, blueberries, and rhubarb.  Oh and 8 fruit trees - we had our first peaches this year - 6 of them - very delicious.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Square-foot Greens

For the last three years we have been trying to grow quite a bit of our food.  We use a mix of traditional style row planting for some things and the Square-foot gardening technique for others.  Spring is a busy time - this year we started many of our seedlings from seeds using two cute plastic green houses to keep them warm in the house and protected from our cats who like to munch on certain greens.  One of them is now out on our porch starting the hardening-off process.  On the top shelf of the greenhouse you can see our sweet potato slips that we are trying to grow for the first time this year.  Sweet potatoes require 100 day growing season and here in Ontario we have about 139 days if we are lucky so it is a bit of a challenge. I overwintered the vines from cuttings from a friend and then re-cut the vine a few weeks ago so that they will start to root.  Each root should produce a few sweet potatoes.
Remember those sprouts back in March in the cold frames?  We have been enjoying lettuce and spinach from the cold frames for the last month.  In a few weeks I'll pick all the lettuce that remains and add new soil to the boxes and plant them with tomatoes and peppers.  We have struggled to grow peppers in the last couple of years with chilly weather so this year they are going up against the house on the south side to give them as much heat as possible.

Jerry tends to take care of the veggies in the traditional beds - the garlic, potatoes, vines, strawberries, asparagus.  I look after the Square-foot beds.  We have 11 4x4' boxes and 4 1x4" beds for vines.  I don't follow the Square foot method completely - I trucked in good garden soil to start with and we add manure and compost to it each year.  We constructed the boxes from leftover timber from  the building of our home - many pieces are falling apart this year and so we will need to come up with something more permanent.  I use string to divide the boxes - it takes up less real estate and the more space you have the more plants you can grow.  When I plant the seeds I use vermiculite in the holes, then the seeds, then more vermiculite as per the original Square Foot book.  It makes it easy to see where the seeds should come up and the Virgo in me loves the tidy, neat look of the gardens - at least for the first few weeks.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Sprouts in the Cold Frames!

Yeah! I have lettuce, spinach, radishes and some herbs sprouting in the cold frames!  Should have some fresh lettuce to eat in April.  I planted the seeds about two weeks ago when we had a warm spell and even with the temps back down below freezing at night they are toasty warm in their little greenhouse.

One of the easiest ways to live more sustainably is to grow some of your food and we have been busy adding gardens each year.  The trouble with gardening in Ontario is the short growing season - frost dates for the area we live in are May7 - Oct 7 and last year we had a late frost the first week of June.  An easy way of extending the season is with cold frames and so I had Jerry (hubby) build me some last year on the south side of the house by the garage.  He used lumber that was kicking around, we picked up window glass at the re-use center for $5 each and with a "pattern" from the Four-Season Harvest book he produced three 4'x4' cold frames for me.  It is important that they be facing south, that they be sloped back to front to the south and be covered with glass.

Last year we had fresh lettuce and herbs well into December and my cilantro and parsley overwintered in the cold frame and is starting to green up again, as is the corn salad (that big patch of green in the center cold frame).  When the weather warms up I will move most of the herbs out to the herb garden and when this crop of lettuce is finished I plan to put some of my pepper plants and tomato plants in the cold frames for the summer.  Last summer our pepper plants did not produce at all because it was so cool and wet.  This year they get the hottest spot in the yard! 

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Our Eco House - the Interior Details

We had the fortune to have a wonderful designer work with us to create our home.  Marina Fensham of thinkGiraffe Design paid attention to the smallest detail, things that we would have never thought about when designing a home.  I asked her to incorporate as many of the design ideas from The Not So Big House by Susan Susanka. Our home is 1,780 square feet on one level and I wanted it to feel larger. The corner windows that create a diagonal view from the front door across the main room give the great room a very spacious feel.

 The east window placed in line with the garage entrance 50' away at the other end of the house means that you are drawn to the light/window at the end of the corridor when you enter the house which is much better than walking into the laundry room like so many homes. 
Our windows are usually the first thing that people notice - they are lower in our home than most houses. Most of our windows line up from one side of the house to the other, including our front and back doors creating a "see-through" kind of look.  The second thing they notice is our black concrete floors.  I wanted to be warm, and as we all know, black absorbs more heat.  The downside, of course, is that it is painfully obvious just how much we humans, and our pets, shed skin and hair.  I have learned to lower my cleaning standards!

The advantage of the lower windows is the outside can actually be viewed from the position you are normally in - which is sitting.  So when I sit at my office desk in the hall the window is just above my desk offering me a view of my front gardens.  In our bedroom we can sit in bed and have our morning tea while watching out over the back yard. 

In the bathroom the window at tub level offers a wonderful view while bathing.  In the living room the windows start at the floor and continue up 8' affording beautiful views of the backyard and the fields beyond.

Storage was very important to me as I hate clutter and wanted to be able to tuck everything away as much as possible.  Marina designed the hall to incorporate a built in look with simple Ikea cabinets for books on one side and coats, linens and even space for a small office area tucked under a window on the other side.

A large pantry off the kitchen was insulated and houses the laundry, microwave, vita-mix and still has room for food storage and cleaning supplies.  Keeping the noisy machines out of the kitchen was important with the open-concept main room. The kitchen cupboards mimic the style of our windows and are once again Ikea.
There are no closets in the house so instead we used Ikea wardrobes and cupboards either built in or free-standing.  The custom built window seat adds even more storage in the form of 8 deep drawers.

One of my absolute musts was to have a covered porch that we planned to screen in so we could enjoy the outdoors.  I had been to friends' country properties and quickly learned that the number of bugs would make sitting outside almost impossible.  Our porch is an extension of the house in the summer and instead of screening we found mosquito curtains ( that are attached in the springtime with velcro along the top and snaps at the bottom and use magnets to close at the door opening.  They keep our porch bug free while still allowing us to enjoy our backyard.  We have even slept out on hot humid nights.  In the fall we take down the curtains and fill the porch with our firewood for the winter.

Having lived with the house design for 4 years now would I change anything?  Probably if I were to do it again I would not have the stairs to the basement open to the room upstairs (noise travels and our son is still living with us) and I would probably go with a walkout in the basement (both the designer and builder suggested we do it at the time of building) and now I can see how it would have been prudent to do to allow us more uses for the house.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Our Eco House - the Inner Workings

Our home is a solar passive design which means by the careful placement and quantity of windows we use the sun to help heat our home in winter. On the north side there is only 4% of the total square footage of the house devoted to windows. On the south side there is 12% of the total square footage devoted to windows.

The sun is lower in the sky during the winter and enters 20’ into the house bathing the black concrete floors with sunlight. On sunny winter days the inside temperature is a cozy 23C° – 25C° with no additional heat source required. We use a high efficiency wood stove for cloudy days and nights and there is radiant in-floor tubing as additional backup. To heat with wood (the only renewable resource) usually costs about $500 if we have to pay for it.

In the summer the sun is higher in the sky and the wider 2’ overhang on the house keeps the sun from entering the house, the concrete floors stay nice and cool so that we require no air conditioning. We have three ceiling fans that see occasional use.

The building shell is Nudura insulated concrete forms – big Lego block Styrofoam forms that are joined together and then concrete is poured into the middle. The walls are 2” of Styrofoam on the outside, 6” of concrete and then another 2” of Styrofoam on the inside for an R value of 50+. The ceiling insulation is R40. This helps keep the house cool in summer and warm in winter. Our basement floor is insulated with 2” Styrofoam and this combined with the Nudura walls keeps the basement at 18-19C with no heating. There is radiant in-floor heating if we want to use it.

We produce most of our electricity from the 1740Watts of solar panels. During the day when we are producing more than we need the “green” energy flows out to the grid. At night when we are using more than we are producing we use energy from the grid. The dual meter tracks both inputs and outputs and we pay the difference. Our hydro bills average about $30 a month, most of which is service charges. We have an integrated battery backup which allows us to still have power in the event of a blackout for all critical appliances.

The average Canadian home uses 35Kw per day of electricity – we use between 5-10Kw – all CFL’s, Energystar appliances, 3 computers, two televisions, DVD players all on power bar. We have no dishwasher, clothes dryer, air conditioner.

We pre-heat our water with ten Thermomax solar collectors on the roof. The water is pumped from the well using a solar panel to power the pump into a 5,000 Litre cistern located under the porch, then is preheated from the Thermomax and topped up with a propane in-line water heater as needed. In the summer we often shower with water heated solely by the sun. Our propane for heating water and cooking averages about $75 per month.

The septic system is a gravity fed Ecoflow system using peat moss to filter the waste.
The metal roof allows us to collect cleaner rainwater into the rain barrels and we also have the ability, should it be required, to direct one of the downspouts into the cistern.
We further conserve water with dual-flush toilets, low-flow shower heads and a front-load washing machine.

The Adventure Began...

Back in the 80's my husband started pushing us to consider the environment and how we lived. At the time most of his suggestions seemed to mean more work for me - the stay at home mom. Suddenly there were rain barrels instead of a hose to water my expansive gardens, suddenly I should be hanging clothes instead of using the dryer, walking or biking instead of using the car, composting scraps, using reuseable grocery bags and on and on. Every week there was a new suggestion. I admit at the time I balked at many of his suggestions - deep down I knew he was right but geesh did everything have to make more work for me?
I eventually came around to his way of thinking and enjoyed the benefits, using watering cans and rain barrels gave me some pretty good looking biceps - not to mention the walking and biking kept me in shape. Then in the early 90's my husband decided to go "veg". I could not get my head around it - he loved meat! loved sucking the marrow out of the bones much to my, and the kids, disgust. I figured it would not last but made sure to be supportive and to cook him things without meat while still cooking meat for myself and our two children. That meant some nights I had three different meals on the stove as invariably one of the kids did not like what I was cooking. It was VERY trying! He did not change his mind. He eventually wore me down. I read all the books he had read to make his decision and again I knew deep down he was right but I loved the taste of steak now and then. Reluctantly, I started cooking more and more vegetarian meals, introducing soy products that seemed like meat and while I still eat meat on occasion probably 90% of my diet is now vegetarian. We lived in the suburbs all this time and eventually put solar panels and a wind tower up on our home to produce some of our electricity but the property was not conducive to taking our sustainability much further.
In 2004 we bought property in a small community near the Grand River and built an eco home on our 1 1/2 acres. And so the adventure began...