Saturday, May 28, 2011

Financial matters

Our financial goal is to spend 100% of our wages on luxuries.  It is an unattainable goal, but we've come fairly close.  Our basic food costs us nothing.  The sale of eggs pays for chicken feed, sale of garden produce pays for seeds, and sale of lambs and kids pays for hay and grain.  We have no mortgage payment, no utility bills, nothing like that.  However, we still need cash for things like property tax, insurance, and gasoline.

The single most important rule we have is: Don't go into debt!  We want to make our own choices rather than being slaves to the financial system. 

To live a good life with little money, we try to know our priorities and spend on the things that make us happiest.  I, for example, spend as much as I need to on art supplies and model's fees.  I also only buy organically-grown, fair-trade, dark-roast coffee beans and 70%-cocoa chocolate.  On the other hand, my clothes all come from the thrift shop and my house goes undecorated.  Those things don't matter to me.  Someone else would have a different set of priorities.

When we first moved off the grid, we each worked about half-time, and that gave us enough cash to go out for dinner, buy expensive Scotch once in a while, and take the odd vacation.  As the years went by, we did even better and got down to one person working half-time.  (We took turns.)  Once or twice, Charles got a higher-paid camp job for a couple of months so we could catch up on stuff like dental work or buying a new couch.

In the last few years, it's been getting harder.  The cost of keeping a vehicle on the road is the main problem. That alone is now taking nearly half of our annual household income of $8,000.  If we want to continue living our lavish lifestyle, it looks like we're going to go back to both of us working part-time again.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Broody hens (and ravens)

A sneaky broody hen taking a quick break
When a hen who is living a natural lifestyle decides to raise a family, she goes about it like this:  She finds or makes a nest in a quiet, dark spot.  Every day, she lays one egg in it.  When the size of her clutch satisfies her, she "goes broody", sitting on the eggs to keep them warm for three weeks.  Since all the eggs start to develop on the same day, they all hatch out on the same day, too.

A broody hen goes into a state not unlike hibernation.  Her metabolism slows down, so she doesn't need to eat as much.  She's very quiet and once she's well into the incubation period. she won't peck at me if I slip a hand under her to check on the eggs.

A truly determined broody hen will continue sitting on a nest even if you take the eggs away, and she may even starve to death trying to hatch out non-existent chicks.  I've read about many ways to discourage such hens and get them to start laying again, but I've never had any of these methods succeed.  Two of my hens are seriously broody right now.

I really don't want lots of chicks, and especially not in the spring.  Chicks born in the spring, when the ravens are also hatching out their own, hungry families, don't last very long at my place.  I try not to allow my hens to hatch any chicks until after the raven chicks have fledged and their parents have taken them elsewhere to hunt.  However, I've given in to my two hens now.  They are more stubborn than I am.

The gosling's pen
I gave seven eggs to a black hen in the barn.  She may have trouble because she's chosen a nest where other hens also lay.  If they fight over the nest, eggs could be broken.  I gave ten eggs to a larger white hen who has found a good spot near the house, in a pen we built for Tobias last spring.  I'm hoping that this year, Charlie will decide that he needs someone new to take care of, and guard the chicks as closely as he guarded the goslings last year.

The white hen on her nest

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Belgian Endive for spring salads

I'm not sure why more people don't grow Belgian Endive (also known as Wiltloof Chicory in the seed catalogues).  It's an undemanding plant that is harvested first thing in the spring when nothing else is even close to being ready to eat.  I've been growing it for many years.  Maybe people object to it because it's a one-year crop; I just planted seed for next year's harvest today, about a week after starting this season's harvest.

an endive shoot showing above the soil
To grow Belgian Endive, pick a spot that won't need to be disturbed until next spring.  Plant the seeds directly in the garden whenever it's convenient; timing isn't critical.  The emerging seedlings look a lot like lettuce but soon grow to be like a very big dandelion--not surprising, since the two plants are related.  The only care they need is thinning to 8" and a bit of weeding till they get going.

In the fall, cut the plants back to ground level.  Then cover them with about 10" of soil.  Sand is even better, since it's heavier, but that is 'way too much work for me!  What I do is shovel dirt from an adjacent area on top of the endive.

the exposed endive
In the spring, when you see the tips of the plants pushing through the soil surface, dig them out.  Shovel the dirt back where it came from.  Eat the tops like lettuce and roast the roots to make a brewed drink.  (This is the chicory that's added to coffee commercially.)

For my spring salad today, I used endive as a main ingredient, then added leaves from anise-hyssop, lemon balm, comfrey, dandelion (also flower buds), parsley, chive, and lovage.  I sprinkled johnny-jump-ups on top.  Yum!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

May goatwalking

Today's goatwalking was really pleasant.  We're getting into the routine now and having our normal May walks on all the dry days.

We live on a 160-acre District Lot that was subdivided in the 1970's into roughly 10-acre lots.  Only a few of these have full-time residents; most are vacation properties and some are undeveloped.  We have permission to range on them all, as well as on an adjacent field.  This gives us a wide variety of terrain: yards, fields, stream banks, a swamp, rocky hillsides, brush, forest.  May's cold nights keep the mosquitoes from hatching, so we take this opportunity to spend lots of time in the forest.

Twinberry leaves opening
Not much is growing on the ground yet, but the leaves are coming out on the shrubs.  Today, I noticed lots of green buds and some unfurling leaves on the rose, twinberry, willow, and saskatoon bushes.  The Balm of Gilead poplars have big, sticky buds with an incredible fragrance.  All of these are enjoyed by both sheep and goats, who bite off the whole twigs.  (I do some grazing myself, but only on the leaves.  I also pick the Balm of Gilead buds to steep in oil for a winter skin lotion.)

Balm of Gilead buds - moose have trimmed this tree, and all the other bushes around it, to about 5 feet.
The goat has a strong digestive system that can use even the tough bark and pith of these twigs.  There are two things that wreak havoc with this digestive system, to the point of killing the goat.  These are: an abrupt change in diet, especially to a rich food, and overeating on a rich food like grain.

One of the important functions of our goatwalking is to avoid the abrupt change I just mentionned.  Instead of going from dry hay straight to a lush pasture, my herd transitions through the shrubs, which combine fresh greens with roughage and include plenty of minerals.

Friday, May 20, 2011

More daffodils

Nearly all my daffodils are blooming now.  The first ones are just about finished, but the other varieties are going strong.  Here are some of them.

Avalon are big and pale yellow

Butterfly daffs - I forget which variety


Thalia, one of my favourites

Barrett Browning

Fragrant Rose

Bellsong, the largest miniatures and another favourite
There are just a few left to bloom.  They'll be starting soon.  

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The season of dandelions

Part of living a natural lifestyle is eating seasonally.  Through the winter, everyone on the farm eats lots of stored food.  The vegetarians get hay and grain. We omnivores get fresh milk and eggs, but our produce is all canned, or dried, or root-cellared.  By spring, we're all longing for fresh greens.

The dandelion is a wonderful plant.  It's one of the first things growing, and we all relish it.  The goats (and sheep, and horses) grab great mouthfuls of it whenever they can.  We eat lots of it, too.  When I'm weeding the garden, I pull the plants out whole, carefully laying them to one side.  When I go into the house, I take them with me and wash them.  The young greens are mostly made into salad, though we occasionally steam them.  I dry some, too, for use next winter.

The roots are chopped and lightly roasted in a slow oven until they're dark brown.  They make an excellent hot drink, which I never call "coffee".  It's especially good made with milk and slightly sweetened with brown sugar.

Our favourite dandelion treat is a dish that Charles calls "vegetarian calamari".  To make it, you take young dandelion plants and trim them, cutting back both the leaves and roots to an inch or so.  Then, you dip them first in beaten egg, then in flour or a flour/cornmeal mixture, and fry them in a very hot pan.  They're delicious plain or with a dip.  We can eat dozens at one meal, and everyone we've served them to has enjoyed them.  The reason for their name, by the way, is their appearance, nothing to do with the flavour.

The latest daffodil to bloom - Minnow, the smallest miniature I have

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Dog cookies (and runaway horses)

I made some soup this morning, so I made a batch of dog biscuits at the same time.  The stock was ready, since I'd had it simmering on the cookstove all day yesterday.  I took out a cup before adding vegetables to the rest for my own dinner.

The cookies are very simple (like nearly everything I do!).  I put two cups of flour in a bowl, added a bit of baking powder (maybe 1/2 tsp) and a couple of shakes of salt.  Then I dumped in the cup of hot stock and stirred until it was a smooth dough.  After rolling it out to about 1/8 inch thickness, I cut it into roughly equal pieces, put the pieces on a pan, and baked them.  Usually, I try to take them out of the oven when the biscuits are pale brown, but this morning, I got distracted while they were in the oven.

Monty and Bree had knocked down a gate and escaped overnight.  Bree loves to do this.  She was born a mile away from here and she likes to go visit her family sometimes.  She probably wanted to introduce them to her new friend.  Anyway, I was baking dog cookies when I looked out the window to see that Monty had come home for his breakfast.  I ran out to put him in the paddock, and overcooked the biscuits.  (I'll have to go get Bree later, after she's had time for a nice visit.)

These dog cookies are a lot cheaper than the store-bought kind, and my dogs love them.  You don't need a recipe.  Use whatever broth you have (chicken giblets are great) and whatever kind of flour you have.  The salt and baking powder are optional.  Store them in a paper bag.

Sunday, May 15, 2011


Tomato seedlings
Because we're so far off the grid, we don't have heat and lights for the seedlings we raise.  They sit close to the windows to get light and are, therefore, cold.  This keeps them growing very slowly, but they get fairly sturdy and develop some hardiness.

I don't feel badly about my tobacco seedlings, because I am the only person around here growing the herb; my plants look great.  However, my peppers and tomatoes seem so scrawny compared with everyone else's!  I have to keep reminding myself that I always get lots of the fruit in the end.

Tobacco seedlings
Sometimes, when I'm in this mood, I think that I should just buy my transplants.  Two things keep me from doing this.  One: the varieties I grow usually aren't available locally.  Two: I just like to prove that it can be done, that even if our economy were to collapse or a natural disaster occurred, we could save our own seeds and produce tomatoes and peppers under sinple (some might say, "primitive" conditions.

A neighbour's pepper seedling on the left; mine on the right

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Monty joins us

Until last Sunday, Monty was living a few miles away from us.  Like our horse, Bree, he was alone.  For the past few years, he hadn't been ridden much, so he was bored and lonely.  His people decided that he would be better off living with us, so he was ridden over and joined our menagerie on a sunny afternoon a week ago.

When Bree saw him coming, she thundered up from the field, mane and tail flying, in a state of great excitement.  Monty was pretty calm, and both horses are friendly, so I didn't think there would be any trouble.  Still it's better to be safe.  I put him in a corral where he and Bree could get acquainted with a fence between them.

Monty's a good-looking bay gelding.  Bree loves the boys and enjoys showing off, so for the first hour or so there was a fair bit of squealing, snorting, and kicking up of the heels.  Then the two of them settled down to graze, but stayed near each other.  When I fed them their hay at dinnertime, I put it up against the fence, and they ate together.

Late the next day, I opened the gate between them.  Bree came running in to see if he had better hay than she did, then they wandered off together as if they were already old friends.  I feel much better about our horse situation now.  It's not fair to keep a herd animal without another of its kind for company.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Juno's Luck

Juno, our eldest goat, is a very lucky girl, but I don't know if her luck is good or bad.

Eight years ago, we had a tin-roofed shelter where we would put a round bale for the goats to feed on.  One day, when the feeder was nearly empty and I was in the house, I heard a terrific crash and then goat screams.  I ran to the window to see a big poplar tree bying exactly where the shelter had been.

As fate would have it, Charles was away, and I've never learned to run a chain saw.  I paused only to grab a hand saw in my mad dash to the downed tree.  Frantically, I sawed through branches, hurling them aside until I managed to free a corner of the roof and wrench it upwards.  Lying underneath was a baby goat just a month old: Juno.  She was pressed against a roof beam that had not crushed her but instead fallen so close that it kept the tin from flattening her. 

When her panic subsided, she got up and walked away, limping slightly.  For a few days, she found it hard to nurse and had to be fed very carefully.  Soon she recovered and showed only one sign of her ordeal: a slightly crooked face.

Three or four years ago, we had a bad winter for snow.  Fluctuating temperatures caused a layer of ice to form on the roofs, which were unable to shed their load of snow.  Outbuildings collapsed all over the countryside.  One of ours came down and, you guessed it, Juno was under it when it fell.  She was a lot bigger by then but was still saved by a roof beam.  It fell onto a high spot, creating a space just big enough to keep her from being crushed again.  This time, she didn't seem to be hurt at all.

Lately, just once in a while, I notice Juno carrying her head in a strange, low position.  I can't find anything wrong, but I worry that she has a weakness in her neck caused by one of these accidents.  I just hope it's not serious and that she continues happily on for a few more years, and doesn't have any more luck!

Sunday, May 8, 2011


I'm a daffodil collector, in a small way.  When I first started my garden, I put in a couple of dozen King Alfred daffodil bulbs, the standard yellow ones.  They did really well and multiplied like crazy.  They still bloom first of the daffodils and started flowering a few days ago.

A few years later, someone gave me a pot of Tete-a-tete bulbs.  There beauties are only a few inches high.  I still wasn't doing much flower gardening back then, but I put them into the ground and they've been blooming every year since, though they haven't multiplied.  They open just a day or two later than the King Alfreds, and their flower looks like a tiny copy.

The next gift I received was a few Ice Follies bulbs.  Their flowers have petals of a creamy, light yellow. 

Once I had three different daffodils in the garden, something happened to me.  I was hooked on them and started searching out more. I'm up to 15 varieties now.  (Actually, it's more than that, because I ordered a mixture once.)  I think it's time to stop adding new ones and take time to enjoy the one I have for a while.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Tobias Makes Friends

Tobias is having an interesting life right now.  It started a couple of weeks ago, when two geese landed on his pond and stayed for a short visit with him.  He's also been visited by mallards and wood ducks. Then, a few days later, a single goose came into our field and the two ate and wandered around the field, together but a hundred feet apart, for two hours.

That single goose (or maybe a series of single geese, how would I know?) has been back many times.  Each time it came, it got closer to Tobias.  Finally, it spent an hour or more just hanging out right beside our pond with Tobias, seeming quite relaxed while the dogs trotted around and I did the chores outside.

Yesterday, I looked up in time to see three geese landing in the field.  This time, I decided to try to get a picture.  By the time I had set up the camera (in the house looking through the window), there were six geese in total, and I had missed seeing  the others arrive. Over the next hour, the geese ate and moved from spot to spot.  I couldn't keep track of them to see if they stayed in the same groups or not.  Then, there were a bunch of skirmishes and, again, I couldn't tell if one particular goose was being either the victim or the aggressor.  Finally, a group of three flew off, then another single one, leaving two to continue eating.  I assume one was Tobias and the other was his friend.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Fences, Partitions, and Gates

We've tried many types of fences over the years.  This is the one that reliably keeps the goats in.  It's 4-foot page wire with a rail on top for height and one lower down that stops the goats from standing on the wire and dragging it down.  Even this fence won't hold in a buck if there are does in heat on the other side!

A gate hinge.  This one is inexpensive, easily installed, and durable.  It's a piece of metal strapping, nailed to the gatepost in a loop.  The gate is held in place within the loop and turns freely.

To make partitions in the barn, we slide boards into the slots on the wall.  Spacers are put between the boards.  We can make the partition into a solid wall by leaving the spacers out.  If the bottom boards are spaced apart more widely, kids can get through but adults can't.  Taking the partition out completely opens up the area.

This is the easiest goat-proof latch we've found.  A loop of very heavy chain can be lifted easily by us, but not by any of the animals.

A rail gate.  This works the same way as the partitions in the barn.  With lots of rails up, it confines the goats.  When we slide the lower rails out of the way, it lets the goats through but keeps the horse in.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Goatwalking with Tobias

Here is the video that should have gone along with my post about our first goatwalk of the season.  I finally got it uploaded.  Lately, I've had a bit of trouble finding an available computer with internet access other than the library one, which won't allow me to plug anything in.  Oh, well, that's life off the grid.

Sunday, May 1, 2011


I've spent some time weeding the garden lately.  I usually do a very thorough job in the spring, then don't worry much about weeds for the rest of the summer.  My philosophy is that if the plants I'm trying to grow are obviously dominating the garden, there's no weed problem.

The worst weed that everyone fights with here is grass.  It might be couch grass, maybe quack grass; I've never identified it.  Everyone just calls it "the Grass" in tones of gloom.  It sneaks into the garden from all sides, sending great long roots snaking under the surface of the soil and then popping up somewhere in the middle of a bed.  It seems to grow several feet overnight.

As I pull out clumps of grass, dandelions, and clover and shake the clinging soil off their roots, I notice something.  The soil around them is a crumbly, soft texture, much nicer than the nearby soil where no weeds are growing.  The worms live there, too, in the shelter of the roots, rather than in the open spaces.

People think I'm crazy, but weeds make me happy.  For one thing, I like the evidence that we are not quite as powerful as we believe.  All we have to do is relax our vigilance for a few days, and our traces will start to disappear from the land.  Also, I enjoy seeing the strength of the life force in general.  Anywhere that there is a bit of room, life is busy filling it.  Life is not weak or easily destroyed, and the weeds reassure me of that.