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.

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.