Weather: weird, worrying or wonderful?

This afternoon we took a break to walk 20 minutes to the supermarket. We dressed in shorts and short sleaves. Along the way a Forsythia and crocuses were in full bloom. Normally in Guelph we might expect to see these things a month from now. Meanwhile buds were bursting on a magnolia, a dogwood, a maple and a lilac, all six weeks ahead. Spring is burning to catch up with itself. It is lovely. It is also frightening.

Extreme weather is normal, but this is no quick flash. The average winter daily high here was above freezing. Looking at it a different way, the daytime temperature only stayed below freezing 18 times between Dec. 22 and the Mar. 21. The weather is expected to cool off Friday, but there is still no sign of frost in the long-range forecast.

What place is this? Surely not Ontario? Our normal last frost date around here is supposed to be May 9. Setting aside the bigger question of climate change, we ought to consider how this affects our environment, economy and food sources right now. Add to this heat a lack of rain and we have a long trend of extremely unusual conditions. Global warming was supposed to bring an economic advantage to cooler temperate climates like this. Farmers must be tempted to plant their crops early, but no one living can assess the risk of planting in Ontario in March.

As soon as I finish digging the backyard garden I intend to plant lettuce, peas and onions, things that tolerate cool weather and frost. If I decide to plant tomatoes a month early, I risk only a few dollars’ worth of seeds and supplies. It is not my livelihood.

The dry weather is bound to kill off blackflies and mosquitoes early. People will not complain about that. Birds, on the other hand, might suffer severely. As swallows and warblers begin arriving hungry after migrating thousands of kilometres, who can say whether a suitable diet will await them? No one has performed this experiment before.

One thing we can expect: plenty of strange weather variations to come. Hunter Lovins of Rocky Mountain Institute called it “global weirding.” Right here and now, it is beautiful, but we should all be a little frightened. Besides that, I must admit to a fascination about what happens next, and how the world will adapt.

Birthday morning post

Who could have believed I would ever eat breakfast on my birthday sitting outside in shorts? The air smells of white pines and is full of the songs of chickadees, red-winged blackbirds, cardinals, goldfinches and crows. I also glimpsed a blue jay flying overhead. I’m going to work on digging the vegetable garden while the bottom of the yard lies still in cool shadows.


I took the umbrella outside and planted it in the middle of the glass table so I could eat lunch on the deck. This weather is fantastic! So is this place. We have silence indoors, but that is nowhere near as beautiful as the complex outdoor stillness. I am reminded of our first few magical days in this house last July before we had our own wireless connection, when I would bring my laptop out here to take advantage of some neighbour’s unsecured network. I loved—still love—the soft movement of air, the bright light and the lack of street noise.

Although in the middle of the city, our house backs onto Hanlon Creek Conservation Area. Yet I can hardly believe the quiet is so profound. The drone of a small plane plus some other distant vehicular muttering leaks like the memory of a dream. Mostly I am enfolded in the whispers of nature.

You can hear the pines even in the slightest air movement but today, despite the breeze, they stand mostly breathless under the sun. Occasionally they whisper a soft: “Aaaaaaaaaaah!” A goldfinch twitters brightly in the distance. A pair of crows flies overhead with a faint sigh of flight feathers. I absorb as much warmth and peace as possible before returning to work.


My favourite time of year

I have two other favourite times of year: Lilacs and August. But my favourite favourite is Dirt. It calls up memories of the first gardens I planted as a boy: first a small herb garden, then a larger vegetable patch across the road, and later a rockery on the bluff overlooking Lake Erie. My heart is rooted in soil. I love when the snow is just melting, everything is wet and the Earth smells like earth.

My birthday comes on the last day that can never be spring, except in California and further west, where the Vernal Equinox occasionally creeps ahead of midnight on March 19. But I am hooked on Ontario.

Usually my age clock clicks higher during the last throes of winter weather. Mom told me I was born during a week of sunny, 70-degree weather (it was a Thursday and we still used Fahrenheit).

What a gift it is to be able to go outside in a t-shirt on a day such as this and dig. And to find such nice topsoil in our new backyard. Dirt has arrived before my birthday with so much promise, incipient power, a dream of urgent growth. Thank you, 2012.

Ready to dig in

I plan to start a permaculture vegetable garden behind the house. March is far to early to start most plants in Ontario. However, with this stretch of mild weather and our well-drained hilltop soil there’s no reason why I shouldn’t start the grunt work this week. Winter will inevitably return, but I can get a head start so when spring returns I can go ahead and plant. Here are two guides to creating a permaculture garden:

How to Build a Permaculture Vegetable Garden

Ten Steps to an Organic Permaculture No-Dig Garden: It would be great to include chickens and they’re legal in Guelph, but that would be a little too ambitious for now.

I need to find a source of straw and manure.

A thoughtful comedy about bird nerds

Yesterday we rented and watched The Big Year (2011), a movie about birders. Specifically it stars Jack Black, Steve Martin and Owen Wilson as three eccentrics competing to break the record for most species sighted in a year. Black plays a socially inept computer programmer who gets no respect from anybody except his mom (Dianne Wiest), Martin plays a CEO trying to retire in order to pursue his passion (with the profound support of his family but equivalent resistance from his vice presidents), and Wilson plays the reigning champion who will stop at practically nothing (and perhaps sacrifice all else) to defend his title.

Despite comedy star appeal, the movie flopped at the box office, unfortunately. Maybe it is too sentimental and not funny enough. This movie is about three things:

  • the diverse relationships of three oddballs with one another and their families
  • bird life as a metaphor for eccentricity and beauty of the human spirit
  • the rewards and fellowship of being a geek

Bird geeks are a peculiar species certain never to become extinct (as long as birds survive). I swear I have met many of the characters in my own excursions around Point Pelee, Wellington County and elsewhere. We must forgive the charming arrogance of some individuals who are very good at what they know and do, and are willing to share it. I have occasionally encountered the less palatable sin of goal setters driven past common decency and respect. But on the whole birders are a humble, generous crowd.

I can’t believe this story would fail to warm hearts in alternate realms of geekhood. Anyone who feels a little bit weird should love it.

But yeah, it also makes me want to do my own Big Year.

Starting with onions

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The vegetable gardening season has begun! Onions require a long growing season to mature. If we’re growing them from seed in a northern climate it means we have to start them in February. This is not necessary for green or bunching onions, which can be sown later outdoors, but I would like to have some bulb onions by the fall.

We purchased a bunch of organic and heritage vegetable seeds from Urban Harvest. I have two onion varieties: Cipolinni yellow, which is sweet and good for storage, and red baron. Today I planted the seeds in these Jiffy seed starters (click on photo above). I would have preferred to start them in open flats, but this was all I could find at Canadian Tire. A few seedlings can start in each cell, to be separated when I transplant them to the garden. That should happen as soon as I can work the soil in April or May.

I’ve set the tray on boards to raise it above the floor over a furnace vent to provide some bottom heat. I don’t know whether onions need this, but it stimulates germination of warm-weather crops like tomatoes. Now is too early to start most of the other seeds, but probably not perennial herbs like thyme, sage and lavender. Tender vegetables like tomatoes, peppers and squash should be started four to six weeks before the average last frost date. That is May 11, according to The Old Farmer’s Almanac.

I intend to use permaculture principles in establishing the garden; more on this later. To bad we don’t have chickens (Guelph is one of the few cities in Canada where it is legal to keep backyard chickens, but I don’t think we’ll try that since we’re only tenants).

Beginners’ vermiculture

This weekend I brought home a brand new Worm Chalet. Finally, after having only thought and talked about it for years, I’ve embarked on a new venture: vermiculture. Even in cold winter climates like Canada, you can make compost throughout the year. You do it indoors with red wrigglers.

I love this technology because it is simple and can be done by anyone. With the right worms, you don’t need a backyard to produce your own compost. So while this simple tool will produce quantities of fertilizer for the vegetable garden I intend to plant this spring, it would be just as useful for someone living in an apartment. It could provide organic fertilizer for a windowsill garden, a city plot, or a neighbour or friend. Even if you don’t live on the land, you can participate in the natural cycle. This harmonizes with the principles of permaculture.

On Sunday I went to the 31st Annual Guelph Organic Conference mainly with the purpose of buying heritage vegetable seeds. I went with the same sole purpose two years ago and never made it past the first seed vendor near the front door of the University Centre. Fortunately this time my partner and I went further, browsed past most of the exhibitors on two levels and brought home lots of seeds and organic chocolate. Most exciting though, we found Cathy’s Crawly Composters.

Cathy Nesbitt had two different composters available. One was a simple setup in a plastic bin. These are easy to make yourself. Worm Composting Canada gives instructions how to make one in a Rubbermaid tub. The challenge with this type of design is that you have to set up more than one to generate a continuous supply of compost for your garden or indoor plants.

The beauty of Cathy’s Worm Chalet is that you don’t have to handle the worms (but maybe you want to!) except when you first assemble it. Besides, it’s clean and compact. Once established it will keep you rich in compost indefinitely. Okay, at around $240 plus tax the worm chalet was a bit of a splurge. Cathy’s simple tub type composter costs about $100. Anyone patient and thrifty enough to shop for individual supplies could put one together for considerably less than that. In six months you will hit pay dirt.

We hit the organic conference near closing time on Sunday afternoon. Cathy was sold out of worms, but she mailed them Monday and they arrived safely overnight. So yesterday we assembled the composter. Here’s how.

Set up the base and bottom traySet up the composter somewhere out of the way where it will stay relatively cool, between 15°C and 20°C. A basement like ours is ideal. Here you can see the base with the bottom tray nested in it. The spigot allows you to drain any excess moisture. This “worm tea” can be recycled back into the compost or diluted with water to feed your plants. Each tray has a screen bottom. For initial setup of the first tray only, cover the screen with a page of newsprint.

Preparing the beddingPrepare the bedding. Cathy’s kit provides enough shredded newspaper for the first tray, plus a coir brick, enough for three trays. This is coconut hull fibre. You saturate the fibre with water then mix it with the newspaper.

Setting up the worm chaletInnoculate the bedding with a little mature compost or soil (Cathy’s kit includes some in a recycled container). This introduces the micoorganisms to help the worms break down organic materials. Mix it into the bedding. As the compost matures, you will need to add more bedding. Just like a regular compost pile needs the right balance of carbon and nitrogen, so does the worm composter. Bedding is carbon-rich material such as shredded newspaper, cardboard, egg cartons and brown leaves.

Setting up the worm chaletThe bedding should contain just enough moisture, the same dampness as a wrung out sponge. Squeeze a handful. If a few drops of water run out, it is just right.

Setting up the worm chaletSpread the bedding in the bottom tray.

Setting up the worm chaletAdd worm food. Food scraps, especially fruit and vegetable material that has just barely started to rot, is ideal. Worms will eat about half their weight in food scraps and half their weight in bedding daily. Add about half a pound at a time, several times a week. Do not overfeed. Do not disturb the worms every day. Include a handful of egg shells weekly to reduce acidity. Some starchy food scraps are okay, but avoid fats and meat. Always bury the food scraps with a little bedding to deter fruit flies and other pests. If you can’t bury it well enough, it’s time to add some more bedding.

Setting up the worm chaletA two-pound package of worms in compost came wrapped in several layers of newspaper.

Setting up the worm chaletRed wrigglers are the right kind of earthworm for this kind of composter. The most familiar kind of garden worm, the night crawler, lives in deep soil burrows and will not survive well in shallow layers such as this. Red wrigglers like living right in the compost. They are readily available as fish bait.

Setting up the worm chaletSpread the worms on top of the bedding. It’s not as exciting to watch as a salt water aquarium, still there’s some entertainment value.

Setting up the worm chaletIt is essential to introduce the worms to the composter under direct light. Their photophobic tendency will cause them to crawl down into the bedding and discover their new home. The light in our basement is not very bright, so I used my light box. Leave them this way for half an hour.

Setting up the worm chaletOnce the worms have settled in, finish assembling the composter. The Worm Chalet comes with two additional trays, which stack one on top of the other.

Setting up the worm chaletWe will continue to use the bottom tray for a couple of months until it fills and the worms become established. Don’t move on too quickly because the bedding will compact. It’s not time to start another tray until the compost makes good contact with the bottom screen, because the worms need to migrate upward of their own accord. With subsequent trays you do not cover the screen with a layer of newsprint, just supply it with bedding and some food.

Setting up the worm chaletFinally the Worm Chalet is fully assembled. The snug-fitting top keeps out pests and keeps the worms’ home dark and moist.

Feeder birds

Our house backs onto Hanlon Creek Conservation Area, so it seemed an ideal place to feed the birds this winter. We expected to wait a couple weeks for the birds to find us, but on the day we put out our new feeder chickadees showed up. Since then we have also had juncos, goldfinches, cardinals and mourning doves.

Your birdfeeder can help birds survive the winter, but once you start attracting them in the fall you have to stay committed. The feeder will influence birds’ decisions about where to camp for the winter. If it runs out of seed they may not be able to find a sufficient alternative.

Cornell Labs is conducting research on feeder birds using the same chip technology used to track lots pets. This video contains more information about it.

Weekend retreat

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I retreated to the cottage for the weekend. Sunday morning I photographed these three butterfly species within five minutes and five paces along the road. I couldn’t see the jewellike Blackburnian warbler in the tall hemlock overhead, but heard his high-ptiched wheezy song. And from a remote, verdant gallery of the woods came a shimmering effervescence of music, the song of a winter wren. So much beauty! There were other, perfect tiger swallowtails, but I liked this one best.