Monday, December 31, 2012

The Big Year

2013 is going to be a bit of a detour from the original intent of this blog.  We have decided to make it "A Big Year".  In the world of birders a Big Year is when you pick a geographical area and make every effort to see as many species of birds as possible within the year.  Now we are not seriously going for the records (money and time will not allow it) but just trying to ramp up our numbers of "lifers" (a species seen for the first time). The inspiration is a movie from 2011 The Big Year starring Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson and is based on the year 1998 when three men were all doing Big Years. Sandy Komito still holds the record of 745 birds seen in North America in 1998 with 3 more accepted by state committees for a total of 748.  Rumours suggest he spent $130,000 to do it.  In 2011 Jon Vanderpoel did a Big Year and ended with 744 birds with 1 provisional. (  To give you an idea of how crazy those numbers are - our lifetime bird count starting in 1984 is only 183 species - TOTAL for North America!  We are not what could be considered avid birders!
 In Ontario the record was broken this year by Josh Vandermeulen with 344 species ( beating the record of 338 set by Glenn Coady in 1996.  The coolest thing about this competition is that it is all based on the honour system.  If you are not 100% sure of a sighting - sadly you do not count it - scouts honour!  Jerry and I have always had that mandate with our lifer list. Both of us must verify a sighting in order for it to make it into the book. There have been a few arguments and probably a few missed birds over the years.
We both have new binoculars, far better than our older ones, we will be trying to get as many pics as possible to verify lifers and we are arming ourselves with an Ipod of bird calls to help with some identifications.  We also hope to have the help of fellow birders to help with identification in the field and maybe through pics posted on the blog.  We don't think we will do any actual "chasing" of birds (reports of rare sightings and you travel quickly to the location in the hopes of still seeing the bird) unless they are quite local to us.  We will be logging more miles on the car but still hope to do it in a somewhat environmental way.
We are lucky enough to live close to some of the best birding areas and migration routes in Ontario - Hamilton, Point Pelee, Long Point, the Grand River.  In the last 6 years living out here we have seen 72 species just in our backyard so with some effort we should be able to increase our numbers substantially.  We are planning to do a few road trips this year into the States and out to B.C. so this should also help our numbers.  We plan to have a list for North America as well as a list for Ontario.  We have spent the last week downloading birding hotspots, booking for spring migration at Point Pelee, studying our bird book and getting lists ready.  Now we just need to wait for the clock....
                                                  Happy New Year - let the counting begin....

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Invasion of the Japanese...

Beetles, that is.  We have been hit hard this year.  Four years ago we had never seen a Japanese Beetle but now they have become a permanent, and growing fixture every summer.  Apparently, they were introduced in Canada back in 1939 in Nova Scotia and have been claiming territory ever since.  There are 300 plants on the adults menu and almost everything we have planted is a favorite.  Our linden trees, gooseberries, raspberries, currants, plums, all the fruit trees, grapes, and this year they found our sweet potato plants.  I’ve spoke with friends in the community who have them eating their basil, tomatoes, beans, and other veggies.  So far, we are lucky that they have not headed into the veggie gardens other than the sweet potatoes.

The last couple of years Jerry  spent hours picking them from the trees and shrubs but the sheer numbers this year on the sweet potatoes necessitated a declaration of war.  We went and bought two of the traps.  There is a great debate online about whether the traps bring more beetles to your property or not.  Ideally, you would want to install them on your neighbours’ property (haha) hoping that the beetles head there instead.  In our case, we are the only property on the street that has extensive gardens so the beetles are all here anyway so we might as well try to limit some of their mating and egg laying. 

The beetles have a one year life cycle where the adult emerges from the lawn in June/ July/August, they find plants to feed on, mate,  then drop down to the grass and lay eggs, then head back up to mate and feed again.  One female can lay about 50 eggs a season so you can see how fast the population can explode. The adults all die at the end of the season. The eggs in the grass hatch to become grubs, big white ugly grubs that then eat the roots of your lawn (that is why our wonderful Ecolawn in the back has been dying off on us in large ugly brown patches).  The grubs overwinter in the soil, then pupate and emerge as an adult the next summer.

By not buying the traps until just a few weeks ago I think we are in for an even bigger infestation next year but we are certainly killing thousands of the beetles.  We have large putrid smelling buckets of beetles and soapy water sitting around making sure they are dead before dumping.  The traps need to be emptied daily of the mass of beetles that are attracted to it.  Still the plants are covered with beetles.

With no predators here in Canada and ideal weather conditions the Japanese Beetle is one more story on how introducing a species from another country can wreak havoc on our own natural systems.  With the cooler temperatures the adults are almost gone for the season but in my head I can hear the chewing of all those baby grubs in the lawn...

Friday, August 31, 2012

Our New Watering System

In my last blog I talked about how we water most of our gardens using rain barrels ( filled with water piped from our roof) and watering cans.  I have been suggesting to Jerry (he would say whining!) for the last year or so that we need to come up with another method in the future.  We are not getting any younger and with injuries to our wrists and arms in the last years it makes sense to limit the amount of work we have to do.  I have been sending him blogs and websites of how others are managing watering systems with solar panels, pumps etc but he has always had a reason why a system was not practical for our purposes.
One day, last week I see there is a long extension cord from the house down past our gardens.  I figured he was working on piping to the rain barrels but went down to investigate.  Miracle of miracles, he has a small submersible pump that is attached to a hose and he is going to submerge it into one of the barrels.  INSTANT WATER! 

 So easy!  Attach hose to pump, lower into water, plug pump in, start watering garden.  I was SOOOOOOOO happy!  I asked him when he got the pump and his response – it was in our basement ALL THESE YEARS!  He had purchased it when we were building 6 years ago for some one time use.  WHAT!  Last year while he was recovering from hernia surgery and I gave myself a frozen shoulder trying to water in the drought there was a PUMP sitting in our basement!  #*&^. 

For a moment my happiness was gone, but then I stood there watering for a bit and all was forgotten -  it was sooooo nice.  You have time to look at all your plants, look at the property, to check out the little details that you don’t see when you are sweating and running back and forth with watering cans.

Once the one area was watered we moved hose and pump over to the next set of rain barrels. The watering of all the gardens was done in record time.  To make it more efficient we have decided to get hoses that we can leave at each rain barrel station (we have three) and then it is just a matter of moving the pump around. 
The one drawback is our watering spout on the hose gets clogged quickly from the sediment in the bottom of the barrels.  We fixed this by just taking off the shower spout and watering with a stream of water.  We could also just add a brick or something for the pump to sit on in the barrel and then it is not pulling in sediment from the bottom.

We also won't be getting that great arm workout from pulling full watering cans from the rain barrels but with all the jobs to do around the property I have a feeling that I still won't be having to join a gym.

And because we almost always are watering when the sun is out, we are using electricity produced from our solar panels to power the pump. YES!  Crossing “watering system update” off the to do list!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Great Rain Barrel Dump

It has been very dry - the understatement of the year - 80% less rain in May than normal, little in June, almost none in July - still we consider ourselves lucky that we live in an area that does see  it's share of thunderstorms which enable us to water most of our gardens, most of the time, using rain barrels.  When we built our home we had the foresight to get our septic installers to install pipes from each of the downspouts around the house and pipe the water back into the garden areas - we have three stations quite a distance from the house with multiple rain barrels connected and then two up near the house, front and back for the gardens there - in total we have 11 barrels.  We should probably have 15. 

 Most mornings finds us outside early slogging to water the gardens - we water by dipping in watering cans into the barrels, pulling them out, then walking to the nearby garden and repeat AGAIN and AGAIN.  It is an awesome arm and shoulder workout but can be more than exhausting when the temp hits into the 30's before 9.  Every year I ask Jerry to put in taps or hoses so we would have less work but recently I have been watering a friends garden while they are away and the tap from a rain barrel takes FOREVER to fill a watering can! So we continue the old fashioned, fast way.  

We have run out of water in the barrels a number of times this year and have had to resort to watering with the hose - after the hard labor of the watering cans it is kinda nice to just stand there holding the hose, no upper arm workout, just time spent gazing around but the well water is cold, not good for the plants and it feels like 'wasting' to us when we use the hose.  We try to get every last drop from the rain barrels. 
When the forecast suggests an 80% chance of rain on the way (like they are today) we take a look at our rain barrels and if there is still water in them we do the big rain barrel dump.  We would rather that water go into our gardens then overflow once the storm hits and just run into the vegetation around the rain barrels.  We did not have the foresight to put the rain barrel stations directly INTO the garden areas mostly because we had no idea where the gardens would be.  That would have made the most sense and we may have to consider changing things up if the summer droughts become standard procedure and I have a horrible feeling that they will.

Anyhow, the forecast is calling for rain and so today was a rain barrel dump day - We have watered and watered to empty out all 11 barrels into our veggie gardens.  Our thinking is that by watering just before the storm there is more chance of the ground being moist and allowing for greater penetration of the rain - these violent, quick storms drop a lot of rain but little seems to be absorbed, instead running off the gardens and taking soil with them. While there is a bit of a risk that we will not have water for days ahead if the rain does not materialize, the "extra" water on the garden is not a bad thing at this point and we can say they have all had a good watering and we may actually have a break from watering if the rain arrives. 
                                             The good news is the clouds are rolling in...

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Garlic...We have Garlic!


For the last few years we have grown a bit of garlic (2,000 heads) to sell to a couple of local markets.  It  was my idea to try it and net us a bit of money that we could put towards a vacation each year now that we are living on a pension.  Last year was a brutal year for us – both of us were injured, we had a long drought and our garlic crop ended up with a rot from the cold, rainy May and we lost half of our crop.  I spent way too many hours looking at pictures of disfigured garlic and reading about the many diseases and how difficult it was to eradicate them.  So it was with great trepidation that we planted our fall crop still using our own seed and in different garden beds.  This year we had a record dry May instead of a rainy one and we did not water the garlic very much worried that we would kick-start the fungus.  Two weeks ago I went out and pulled up a few sick looking garlic and sure enough it looked like the same rot as last year.  I was sooo disappointed and really trying to avoid going out to actually harvest.
 The garlic is planted in October, November  - each head separated into individual cloves and each clove is planted to yield a head of garlic the next summer.  Hard-neck varieties like ours – Music – send up scapes in June, early July that need to be trimmed off.  We sold some of our scapes to local markets a few weeks ago (the earliest on record for us) and as of July 1 the scapes we left on were standing erect, a sure sign that the garlic was ready to harvest.  July 2 is the earliest we have ever harvested our garlic – four years back we were harvesting the end of July!  Last year we started harvesting July 11.  This year July 2! 

 We went out and started pulling the garlic and lo and behold – we had great garlic!  Some really nice large heads and a fair number of smaller heads due to the lack of water but almost no rot!  I was doing a happy dance and starting to count the dollars I can tell you (we already have a week booked in Myrtle Beach in August ya see).
Harvesting garlic is pretty labor intensive and best done by hand – while Jerry loosens the soil with a pitch fork I do an initial quick clean and look to remove most of the soil and make sure it looks healthy – any suspect garlic goes in a separate bin right away.  Once we have a wheelbarrow full we head up to the garage where it gets a further cleaning, removing more soil, some brown leaves and another look to make sure the bulb is sound.  We then tie a dozen together with a string and then hang them from nails we have placed all over the garage so they can dry for another 2-3 weeks.

Once they are dry we will then cut off the leaves, stalk and some of the roots and do the final clean with gloves or toothbrushes.  It is then we will also do the big separation of keeping back seed stock for next year, then dividing the rest to sell by size.  The largest we will sell individually and the smaller stuff we will bundle in ½ pound or 1 pound bundles.

We also planted a fair number of bulbils in the fall – bulbils are garlic seeds from the flower (scapes) and they are super tiny.  It takes three years of successive planting to get the bulbils to be big enough to plant for garlic heads but it is a great way to get “clean” seed (without any disease) and a cheap way to increase your seed stock, albeit cheap and looong way to increase your seed stock.  

Monday, February 27, 2012

Winter? What winter?

It has been a strange winter here in Ontario.  For the second year in a row we have not had to shovel our driveway even once.   Yes, we have cleared our walkways of a couple of inches here and there but for the most part the few snow accumulations have been quickly followed by a warm spell with rain and the snow is melted away.  A friend shared this table from Environment Canada.
News Release
Ontario Weather Review
January 2012 
In January 2012, balmy temperatures continued to reign across the province.  Mean temperatures approached, but somewhat surprisingly did not surpass, the values of 2006 when most recent records were set in Ontario. This January, mean temperatures were above normal values by as much as 7.8 degrees Celsius, which was the case in Dryden!
Unusual mean temperature readings (in °C), ranked by variation from normal:
Location         MeanTemp  Normal   Difference   Warmest since
Dryden                 -9.7             -17.5            7.8             2006
Kenora                 11.4            -17.3             5.9            2006
Sioux Lookout     -12.8            -18.6            5.8            2006
Red Lake            -14.0            -19.6             5.6            2006
Thunder Bay         -9.9             -14.8             4.9           2006
Wawa                   -9.9             -14.8            4.9            2006
Peterborough        -4.2              -8.9              4.7            2006
Kapuskasing        -14.0            -18.7              4.7           2010
Toronto Pears       -1.7              -6.3               4.6           2006
Elliot Lake            -7.3            -11.8               4.5            2006
Geraldton             -14.7           -19.2              4.5            2006
Chapleau              -11.7           -16.0               4.3           2006
Trenton                 -3.2              -7.5                4.3           2006
Pickle Lake          -16.3            -20.5               4.2           2007
Sault Ste. Marie      -6.4            -10.5              4.1            2006
Earlton                  -12.3            -16.4             4.1             2010
Kitchener-Waterloo -3.2              -7.1             3.9            2006
Sudbury                   -9.8            -13.6             3.8            2008
Timmins                 -13.7            -17.5              3.8            2010
Sarnia                      -1.8            -5.4                3.6            2006
Windsor                   -0.9             -4.5               3.6            2006
Moosonee              -17.1            -20.7              3.6            2010
Kingston                  -3.6             -7.1                3.5            2006
London                    -2.8             -6.3                3.5            2008
Toronto                   -0.8             -4.2                3.4             2006
North Bay               -9.6           -13.0               3.4               2008
Wiarton                   -3.4             -6.8               3.4               2008
Muskoka                 -7.1           -10.4                3.3             2008
Petawawa              -10.1           -12.9                 2.8            2010

Notice that the warmest years have been over the last 6 years.   Whether you debate climate change as man-made or just cyclical there seems to be little doubt that we are currently warming.

  In the past our spinach has overwintered in our cold-frames and we eat it until December.  This year we harvested some in January and it is still growing well in February.

  The Eastern bluebirds that nest with us every year overwintered this year in the back yard, the first time we have noticed this.

Since the weather was a balmy 32 F we went for a walk into the woods across the field.  What prompted the walk was the arrival of a herd of 31 deer.  They all came running over a period of 5-10 minutes through the field after crossing the road and ended up streaming through our back yard and the field behind us before all hopping the fence and disappearing into the woods.  I wanted to follow their trail.

  The woods are actually a landlocked conservation area that was man-made – picture perfect rows of pine after pine.  Around the exterior the native trees have taken a stand and there is a mixed wood with maple, black walnut, oak, and hickory but once you venture in a bit it is all pine.  The lack of snow made it fairly easy to walk through at this time of year and as we walked we found these depressions in the snow where deer must have been sleeping in the night.  There were 5-6 of these spots melted in the snow a few feet apart.

In the middle of the woods is a large pond.

A massive oak near the pond.  Local kids use it for a swing.
                          Yes!  Buds!  spring is on the way...
There will be pros and cons to the warming weather, and if it continues there will be changes to what we are able to grow, and like nature we will have to adapt.  

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Freedom 55 Here We Come!

Happy New Year!  Guess what my resolution is?  To blog more often.  I have set a goal of at least one a month and I am putting it in writing so it is here for all to see.  Feel free to send me reminders if I miss my goal.

What better way to start of the New Year than a fascinating blog about...fiscal responsibility! Did you think I was going to say weight loss?  Part of living sustainably is living within your financial means and Jerry and I are about to embark on that journey big time.  He officially starts his retirement pension in May of this year when we will have to live on about a third of our past income but till then we are without a pay check!  Yes, it is rice and beans for us for the next 5 months! We knew that this day was coming and we have saved money to cover our expenses over the next months but still it is pushing us out of the very comfortable zone we have been in for the last 35 years of getting a very decent wage deposited to our bank account every two weeks.
There is now a notebook on the desk to write down every penny we spend over the next couple of months to track where our money is going.  We sat down a few months ago and made up a new “retirement” budget based on our current expenses.  All that is missing is the glass jars that Gail Vaz-Oxlade suggests on her wonderful show “Till Debt do us Part” (  In fact we used the budget under her resources.  I often watch that show and am always shocked at the lack of financial knowledge the couples have.  Note to parents: the most important lesson to teach your children is fiscal responsibility!

For Jerry and I this exercise is really reverting back to the way things were when we were first married 33 years ago – we had a budget, we had envelopes instead of jars (why did I not see the potential then to be a guru to the masses?), the cash went in the envelopes and when it was gone we did not spend anymore.  We were very careful with credit cards always paying off the balance and used credit sparingly.  We only ever lived on Jerry’s salary and my salary went first for a down payment, then to pay the mortgage off on the house and the occasional trip – and we lived very well.   We always saved at least 10%-30% of our income and that allowed us to invest in rental properties and mutual funds.  Ultimately, this system gave us the opportunity to build our eco home and to allow Jerry his “Freedom 55”.

Choosing to live sustainably saves you money in a myriad of ways.  While our house cost more to build upfront our monthly costs will only be 15% of our income where most people have housing costs upwards of the 35% suggested by Gail.  Owning a Prius and making trips multifunctional keeps our transportation costs at about 7% of our income rather than the standard of 15%.  Using vinegar and baking soda for most cleaning saves on the grocery bills as does a vegetarian diet – beans and lentils are much cheaper than meat.

Making choices about what is really necessary for day to day living also saves you money - I am probably the only cell phone customer left that pays $10/month and not under a contract, we choose not to stop for coffee and tea every time we get in our car, we rarely eat in a fast food restaurant, and we borrow books from the library or buy them at Value Village.

Doing a budget again after many years gave us a chance to review what was important for us to spend our money on.  We still have an amount for charities that we hold dear to our hearts, there is still a monthly massage that I swear is a need not a want, there is money set aside for a yearly vacation and there is money for an emergency fund – another must from Gail’s suggestions.

To be honest, after years of hearing Jerry complain about my spending habits (which I swear were not horrible anyway) I am looking forward to the challenge of living within a budget and finding ways to stretch our dollars.  Our “Freedom 55” will not look like the TV ads, luxury vacations, golf courses and yachts but it will be a totally awesome, fulfilling life starting with the peace of mind that only a budget that balances can bring.  Oh, and tonight for dinner?  Lentil soup!