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.

Shifting to local food

In recent months I have shifted dramatically toward consuming more locally produced food. I began buying into the idea years ago, but putting it into practice was harder. Before I concentrated on using local foods, the seasons tended to pass unnoticed.

Peaches, for example. Ripe peaches in season are one of my favourite foods, but the ones that appear in Canadian supermarkets throughout the year are mealy, dry and tasteless. I never buy them. Decent American peaches appear earlier in the summer, but there is nothing like the taste of Ontario peaches when they appear at the farmers’ market around July 25. Paradoxically, once or twice I have entirely missed peach season because I wasn’t paying attention.

Last summer was different. I bought a basket every week of peach season and went through it with delight. Perhaps that was the beginning of my behavioural shift.

But the most important influencing factor came from reading Michael Pollan’s bestseller In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto in March. He gives a bad rap to nutritionism, the philosophy that healthy eating depends on getting the right nutrients. The Western diet, a puzzle of good fats and bad fats, high carbs and low carbs, micronutrients and vitamins, for all the effort it requires, seems responsible for increasing cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Instead, he suggests we should throw away the food-like items that line our grocery shelves and simply eat natural food.

One of the simplest ways to do this is to rely more on locally produced food. In fact, it’s best to know the people who grow it. Since reading Pollan’s book I have shifted toward buying local (often organic) produce, dairy and meat. Most of it comes from the farmers’ market. It tends to be more expensive than what comes from the supermarket, but the food industry has created an illusion. All that cheap food has hidden costs to the environment, the communities that produce it, and our health.

I notice the change of seasons a lot more, because my diet comes to depend on them. Over recent weeks I have thrived on rhubarb, strawberries, asparagus and sorrel. I buy them every week. I experiment with new recipes. Recently I purchased a great cookbook, Simply in Season (expanded edition) by Mary Beth Lind and Cathleen Hockman-Wert. Although I tend to rely heavily on the internet for cooking ideas, this book inspires me with what to look for. I’ve made delicious rhubarb muffins, asparagus salad, sorrel soup and tonight some wonderful gluten-free strawberry bread.

When my partner and I move into a house the end of this month we intend to buy a small chest freezer. This will make it even more practical to rely on local food throughout the year.

This shift connects me more directly with the Earth, from which all nourishment comes.


Change is afoot—major change. Next month my partner and I will begin moving into a house in the south end of the city. I’ve lived alone for 15 years, and we have had a distance relationship for the past eight, so it’s a big new adventure. These are exciting and happy times.

We had hoped to find a place walking distance from downtown, but this one is not. It is in the suburbs, but it will be a fine home, and we fell in love immediately. It has a beautiful third-floor great room perfect for our craft projects. Perhaps best of all, it backs onto a conservation area. I can open the gate and walk into the woods.

This brings me to a kind of philosophical quandary.

In recent years I’ve strived for a simpler lifestyle. From my current apartment I can walk to the farmers’ market, to grocery stores, the pharmacy, friends, the park, coffee shops where I can meet other writers, the queer library where I volunteer, and so on.

The suburbs present obstacles to simplicity. From our new home we won’t be able to walk to most of these things. We will have to drive or take a half-hour bus ride. The only thing we can walk to is a good locavore pub.

Possibly we will only live there for a year. Our opportunity to live together has come up suddenly. We see this as a time to get our bearings and figure out what comes next. So perhaps this is part of the experiment. It comes as a challenge to explore my values in a new setting. I’ve never lived in the suburbs before, and I’ve never lived on the boundary of a park.

Intense lightning

Last night we were hit with one of the most frightening thunderstorms I can remember. It started with violent gusts of wind that woke me around midnight to close the windows on the east side. Then came sheets of torrential rain swirling under streetlights as gusts of wind tore at the trees. Traffic ploughed through deep streams of water running down the hill. Continuous lightning lit up the city. I watched the sky anxiously for a funnel cloud.

I found myself standing in a puddle of water. The wind was blowing it right through a crack under the window. Next came volleys of hail against the glass. The building shuddered in the wind. It seemed to be under attack.

I thought for sure some tornadoes must accompany such a violent storm, but the news hasn’t reported any yet this morning. However, the Hamilton Spectator reports 80,000 lightning flashes were detected in this storm over Ontario by the Canadian lightning detection network.

White-nose syndrome spreads to Canadian bats

Canadian Wildlife Federation reports in the article Is this Goodnight? that a fungal disease decimating hibernating bat populations in the United States has spread to Canada. White-nose syndrome spreads easily in cool, damp environments such as bat caves. It disrupts hibernation patterns causing high rates of mortality, for reasons as yet unclear. Researchers see little hope of mitigating the disease and warn that populations of the little brown bat may decline to 1 percent of current levels within a few years. Scientists are trying to get the little brown bat listed as an endangered species, which would make additional research funding available. The fungus affects other North American bat species that hibernate.

Eastern screech-owl

Last night, my partner and I received a mysterious and memorable visitation. With the sun setting behind the Church of Our Lady, we walked down the hill to The Boathouse for ice cream. It was an immaculate spring evening. Sitting at a picnic table eating our treat, we gazed over the shining, shadowy river where ducks and geese restlessly approached roosting time. Across the river, verdant lacework had begun to spread across the veil of willow bows.

I wanted to stroll under those trees. Finishing our snack, we crossed Gordon Street bridge and followed the worn footpath through the darkling woods. When soggy soil dissuaded us from going further, we turned instead to stand and survey the city. Streetlights and glowing sky reflected in the water, enclosed like a stained glass window by willow branch leading.  A new moon winked and tiny bats fluttered past the panes.

The corner of my eye caught another movement nearby. I took my partner’s shoulders and turned him, pointing and whispering. A gnome-like figure perched not far away, craning its neck to see us. With a soft, puzzled bark it launched on soundless wings to edge closer. From one branch to another it came, until it sat not five metres directly overhead. Then, with one quiet hoot it flew a little further off. At last the falling light illuminated its silhouette, a ghostly pale, rounded face and silver-grey streaked breast.

A few times in my life I have heard the eerie whinny of an Eastern screech-owl. Sometimes they would haunt the trees behind the house where I grew up and sit motionlessly against the moonlit sky of a Lake Erie night. But last night was the closest encounter I have ever had with a wild owl.

Eventually it drifted into the darkness. We could see it flying here and there in the dim distance on errands or reconnaissance through its woodland property, but it paid us no further heed.

I wept with happiness. I am not naive enough to think the owl spared us any sentiment. Its approach implied at best curiosity, more likely mild umbrage at our trespass. Whatever it thought, we received its visit as a soulful gift. Nature repeats itself endlessly, seldom changing drastically, especially in the heart of the city. You have to be in the right place at the time, faithfully, patiently present and aware. Sometimes you might cross the path of breathless beauty.

Mixed-flock swallow phenomenon

Over the weekend I witnessed interesting behaviour in a flock of swallows along the Speed River. Friday afternoon on the way home from work I stopped in Riverside Park and found a mixed-species flock of swallows feeding over the river just south of Woodlawn Bridge. There were approximately 200 birds of three species, predominantly tree swallows with large comparable proportions of barn and northern rough-winged swallows.

A strong breeze blew almost parallel to the current. Numerous tiny winged insects appeared to be struggling on the surface of the water. Perhaps the breeze had prevented them from escaping it, or perhaps the intense bird activity had driven them down. The swallows would fly swiftly downwind for a distance, then turn and use the headwind to slow them so they could dip close to the surface and pick up bugs on the way back upstream.

I was suprised to see so many birds of different species feeding in one place, and wondered whether it might be a co-operative strategy. Possibly they all happened to be in one place because the food was there. However, something else happened to indicate a social dynamic among the species.

While feeding they seldom vocalized. Suddenly something excited the birds. Perhaps they had detected a bird of prey. All at once they rose above the treetops and began vocalizing noisily. They continued to circle, remaining in a distinct flock. This lasted for 30 seconds, then the swallows returned to the river, resumed feeding, and became quiet again.

An article from Stanford University’s website discusses mixed species flocking. Wikipedia also offers a useful entry on this foraging behaviour. It is fairly common among insectivorous birds such as chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers, warblers and vireos in North America, other species in different parts of the world. Scientists have some theories about why they do this, for example the mixed flock may protect less vigilant species from predators so they can concentrate on foraging. Research suggests it is more likely to occur when food is scarce.

Food scarcity probably brought the swallows together. When I asked Chris Earley, interpretive biologist and education direction at University of Guelph Arboretum, about what I had seen, he pointed out that cold weather has not favoured the emergence of insects. The swallows would stand the best chance of finding food close to the river.

The literature scarcely mentions swallows, indicating only that they “rarely join” mixed species foraging. Possibly the swallows appeared together only because they had found the best source of food. However, interaction within the flock suggested something more complex.

I expected it to be an isolated incident, but I was wrong. Two days later, on Sunday afternoon, I went for a walk near the covered bridge, several kilometres downstream from the first location, and again encountered dozens of swallows feeding together over the river. The numbers seemed slightly less, but the proportion of species was similar. Evidently a few individuals had parted ranks, moved to breeding territory or perished, however I believe I stumbled coincidentally on the same group of birds in a different place.

On this occasion I witnessed pairs of birds flying in close formation over the water several times, usually a tree swallow with a northern rough-winged swallow. Tree and barn swallows appeared to be slightly stronger, more agile flyers, however all three are highly competent. The formation flying appeared to be deliberate, however I can only speculate about its purpose.