I came back from holidays to find a grand-daughter I didn’t recognize. Her face was swollen and bright red, almost purple. The poor girl’s eyes were tiny slits and blisters covered large areas. An allergic reaction to poison ivy is what I was told. Mom and dad donned rubber gloves and went in search of the culprit. Plants were pulled out by the roots and disposed of in plastic bags and some needed to be sprayed as they wrapped themselves around trees.
I was amazed at the damage done to the poor girl and wondered how? Apparently the chickens wandered into a patch of poison ivy and while carrying and cuddling one of her favourites she rubbed it on her face. I would say she learned a lesson but she loves those chickens. I suggested to mom it was time to get a family pet. The children are four, six and nine, what better age, but another responsibility is not what was needed. The children and their tutoring, the chickens and the gardens are a heavy enough burden she said and I agreed.
Right now baby toads can be found hopping along in the grass. The children run around collecting them and place them in an old fish tank on the porch. They have also placed rocks on the bottom in some shallow water and added some greenery. They collect food for them and watch them hop around. Every night after they go to bed mom goes out and releases them only for it to start again the next day. This I know won’t last much longer as the toads will grow and escape to the wetlands across the road minus the ones that turn into compost under grandpa’s lawn tractor.
Being home schooled by a mother who has a masters degree in environmental studies is really obvious. The three grandchildren on our homestead continue to amaze me. They recognize plants, birds, insects and even rocks. The latter is from their dad’s teachings. Their curiosity is never ending. When they see something, for example a butterfly or moth, they capture it and put it in a jar. Out will come one of the many books which pertain to the subject and the search begins. After the identification is made they release whatever it was now the wiser.
The children are like sponges, soaking in all kinds of information. A bird sings, they tell me what kind it is. We find a caterpillar, I’m told what it will turn into. They are happy to pass their knowledge on to me. As we ride the golf cart around the property I’m bombarded with words of wisdom. The six and nine year old obviously outshine the four year old but he too shows his knowledge in other ways. While sitting on the porch swing one day a bee was coming toward them. Not long ago his sister got stung and he remembered her cries. Pointing at the offending bee he warned, “a pollinator.”
They say the older you get the more exercise your brain needs. We’re told to do crosswords, learn a language or in my case, go for a ride in the golf cart with my grandchildren.
Children need something to love. Something that they can give special attention to. Something that thrives under the care they shower upon it. Pets and young siblings are wonderful things for children to love. Unfortunately, at our house, our two daughters have neither a pet nor a younger sibling who appreciates their coddling (4 year old brother wants to be a big boy, not a baby). Not to be thwarted, however, they have set their sights upon our chickens.
Unlike a cat or dog, chickens are neither cuddly nor appreciative of any attention. Despite their ignorance of the love lavished upon them, the girls do their best to wrangle the hens for some cuddle time. While the hens run around squawking at the indignity, the girls chase after them, grab them by the tail, pin them down and then swoop them up into their arms. A quick “put down the chicken” from mom or dad sees the hen thrust away with another indignant squawk and a ruffle of its feathers.
To us adults, one chicken is like another. But to the girls, every hen is unique and distinguishable from the others by the pattern of her feathers and the length and degree of floppiness of her comb. Each hen also has a name. To my knowledge, we have hens named Laura, Flora V and Flora C, Lydia, Fuzzy, Pocahontas and Jezebel. Our rooster, dubbed Sir John, is truly a chivalrous individual. During the first two months he was docile and the girls picked him up just as they did the hens. That didn’t last long.
Just recently, he has shown aggressiveness toward the men at our country home by running at them and trying to hit them with his wings. The children are now cautions of what they do outside and keep an eye out for him when the flock is free-ranging. This change in the rooster has prompted a change in the girls; they are very cautious when near the hens and no longer feel entitled to pick them up for cuddles. They have also been stranded on a table, slide, and in a tree because of their over-active imaginations and healthy respect for Sir John.
Sir John is living up to his name; not only is he becoming more protective of his flock of 30 hens, but he is also a model of chivalry. When we bring out a bowl of kitchen scraps, the hens are trampling over one another to get to the pickings, while Sir John stands back and watches. When ranging around the property, Sir John always has a following of hens. He also has, what seems to me, a very altruistic relationship with his hens. When he comes across some tasty morsel, be it an insect, worm, or food scrap, he won’t gobble it up himself. Instead, he has a particular series of clucks that summon any hen nearby to come and enjoy his find. The hens run in and eat up the treat while he stands over them and watches.
I suppose the hens are glad to have their knight in shining feathers protecting them from the two-legged dragons that used to sweep in and carry them away. We’re also grateful that we no longer have to wonder where the girls are and what hen needs rescuing.
We get our share of bumps, bruises and scrapes while working and playing at our country home. Our preferred treatments are herbal or homeopathic. I’ve outlined two of our go-to remedies below.
Our first treatment, comfrey salve, we use for skin irritations. Luckily, the previous owners planted comfrey next to the compost bin, as its leaves can be tossed into the compost heap to accelerate decomposition. We discovered that comfrey also improves soil, but more pertinent to this post, it also works wonders for bruises, rashes, bug bites and other skin irritations. Made into a salve and then spread over the affected spot, the comfrey speeds healing. Comfrey should not be taken internally or used on open wounds. Here’s a good read to learn more about comfrey from Mother Earth News.
Since the salve we make uses dried comfrey leaves, we begin by cutting and drying the comfrey. The best time to harvest comfrey (and any herb for that matter) is in the morning after the dew has dried from the leaves. We then lay the comfrey on something that allows air to circulate fully around the leaves, and place that out in the sun (last year we used a piece of a wooden pallet). We let the comfrey sit in the sun for several days until no trace of moisture remains. At night, we put the comfrey under a shelter to prevent the dew from settling on it, then place it back in the sun the next day to continue curing. Once dry, we crush the leaves and store them until we can make the salve. If you want to give it a try, I recommend following the directions to make the salve posted by Creative Christian Mama. If you need a source of dried comfrey, we can help you out.
Our second treatment, a poultice, we use to relieve pain. Dad Harrold aggravated a tendon in his elbow through the chore of splitting firewood. This injury is also known as tennis elbow or golfer’s elbow, but we refer to it as chopper’s elbow.
We came across a recipe for a poultice for pain relief and mixed up a new batch to try. We spread it on the elbow, wrapped it in plastic wrap and left it for the recommended 30 minutes. Afterward, Dad was able to use his elbow without much discomfort for the remainder of the day. We applied the poultice again on the next two mornings. The elbow still causes him some discomfort, but it hasn’t been as debilitating since we used the poultice. You can find the recipe for the Spicy Pain Relieving Poultice below
Comfrey salve is also beneficial for muscle pulls or strains when smoothed over the injured area.
But… sometimes things happen that make you appreciate modern medicine. I was collecting some leaf mulch to put into the chicken run with a narrow-tined pitchfork. I jabbed the pitchfork into some leaves near my feet and managed to also put it through my rubber boot and through a toe. Since my last tetanus shot was 10 years ago, it was off to the walk-in clinic. I received my shot and some antibiotic pills and cream. As a rule, I don’t like to take antibiotics, but they do have their place and time, and this was one of them. I tried to compensate by upping my intake of probiotics.
Dad Harrold assured me that he would collect the leaf mulch from now on, since he has steel-toed boots and more presence of mind. However, I think he is over-confident about his presence of mind since the first time he went to gather some mulch he wore open-toed Crocs!
Blend all ingredients into a paste. Spread the paste over the affected area and hold in place using plastic wrap. Wash hands with soap and water as the cayenne can burn sensitive areas. Remove the paste after 30 minutes.
Note: Turmeric can dye fabrics and will stain clothing. It will also temporarily dye skin yellow.
Source: Linda White, 2014. Spice Away Soreness, Mother Earth News Food and Garden Series: Guide to Healing Herbs. pp 61-63.
This past autumn and winter saw Dad and I researching, planning and dreaming about increasing our self-sufficiency. Our ultimate goal is to decrease our consumerism and increase our ability to live off our land and enjoy the fruits of our own labours. We immersed ourselves in permaculture* literature and videos and came away inspired to try new techniques for resilient living.
As noted in our last post, we have a flock of laying hens producing over two dozen eggs every day. These hens provide us with an exceptional source of protein and we consider our eggs to be over-achievers in health department because we know the hens who lay these eggs and the conditions in which they live. The hens are free to behave the way God designed them to behave and forage all over our yards and pastures for any creep-crawly dainties they can find. The result is a deep yellow-orange yolk, not the pale variety of grocery store eggs. We also supplement their foraging with an organic feed.
Dad Harrold is keen to expand our chicken husbandry and wishes to raise some meat birds. Doing so requires a bit more preparation and infrastructure before we’re ready to take it on.
Something much smaller scale than meat chickens that we’ve already accomplished is moving our raspberry patch. We dug up the roots from an old patch that was becoming shadier and shadier each year and consequently producing less and less fruit, and added them to a new patch in a much sunnier location.
But we have made progress in another area: our orchard! The past weekend we made a trip to Wiffletree Farm to pick up our order of 36 trees and shrubs. We brought home both fruit trees (10 apple, three plum, four pear, three peach, three apricots) and nitrogen fixing trees and shrubs (six sea buckthorns, two honey locusts, two autumn olives and three Siberian peashrub). If you’ve ever planted a tree, you’ll know how much work planting 36 trees can be. Fortunately, a helpful neighbour came over with his “mighty machine” and dug the 36 holes for us in less than an hour. If only planting could have been so quick…
Dad and Mom managed to get the 36 trees and shrubs planted over two days with some assistance from the little Harrolds. Their involvement on day one was primarily finding worms, grubs, and beetles in the upturned dirt and feeding them to the chickens. They were more involved on day two, as we rewarded their efforts with hot cocoa (after a cold, drizzly morning) and popsicles (after the sun broke out and the humidity ratcheted up). I’m writing this post a full four days after we finished planting and my body still aches from all the shovelling. But it’s not my back or legs that hurt, it’s my pectoral muscles?!?! I didn’t know that shovelling used those muscles so much.
The very day we finished planting a week of cool, wet weather set in; providential for newly planted trees.
From the fruit trees we’ve planted, we hope to expand our orchard through rootstock propagation and grafting. If it all works, we can plant the orchard in the field currently used for cash crops. A future with a permaculture apple orchard next to our home is a much rosier future than one with a field of soy/corn as a close neighbour.
Following are some photos of the progression of our new orchard.
*permaculture – the development of agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient.
We have ourselves a new group of chickens. After selling our old flock to new homes, cleaning and renovating the coop and enduring over a month of buying eggs, we brought home 31 new chickens; that’s 30 pullets and 1 rooster to keep them all in line. That’s also 31 new names the girls are choosing. The rooster was easy: Sir John, named after a character from a book we’re reading, Men of Iron by Richard Pyle. I believe the hen names include Mary, Esther, Elsa, Friend, Feisty and Penny.
Our birds came from Frey’s Hatchery and were delivered to our local feed store where we found them clucking away in crates waiting to be picked up. The excitement of 30 new chickens motivated the Little Harrolds to be especially cooperative and efficient during morning lessons. They finished their work and piano practice before lunch with time to spare. If only every day could be so smooth!
From the feed store three crates of chickens were crammed into the minivan to the delight of the Little Harrolds who reached out and stroked their feathers through the crates. They spied three eggs within the crates and even witnessed a hen laying an egg while travelling in the van. Once unloaded from the crates the birds familiarized themselves with the run and quickly found the water and set to scratching about. Before they arrived, we filled the run with leaves that we had raked last fall and set aside in a pile to rot away. Into these leaves we tossed in some barely composted fruits and veggies. The chickens seemed quite pleased with their new surroundings.
Come nightfall the chickens did not know to go into the coop and up onto the roost. We found them as a huddled mass in a corner of the run and picked them up one at a time and pushed them through the run door into the coop. From there we picked them up one-by-one and placed them on the roost. It took a few more nights before they all learned to file into the coop and up onto the roost for the night.
The pullets quickly found the nest boxes and began to use them. We have ten boxes they can choose from but they favour the bottom row of boxes. A handful of hens prefer to lay their eggs outside in the run nestled among some dry leaves. We expected the hens to begin laying within a few weeks of their arrival, but the girls came with eggs in the crate and haven’t let up. We’re collecting around two dozen eggs a day.
Ahhh… fresh eggs from the henhouse – can’t beat it.
Crop rotation is an essential strategy for organic gardeners. By alternating the crops planted at a particular site, a gardener can avoid soil-borne pathogens and pests, replenish nutrients in the soil and take advantage of symbiotic relationships.
After we’ve taken stock of our seed supply and ordered new seeds, it’s time for us to decide what real estate each crop will have in the garden. We begin by pulling out the garden plan from the previous year to refresh ourselves as to where each crop had grown the previous season. This plan is a simple map sketched on paper and is invaluable because it is amazing how poor our memory is from one year to the next!
We adopted our system of crop rotation from an article by Carol Hall in the book Living the Country Dream, in which a simple, four-year rotation is presented. Hall recommends dividing your garden into four quadrants and rotating those quadrants each year. The first quadrant contains the cabbage family (brassicas); the second root crops; the third legumes, cool-weather crops and salad crops; the fourth warm-weather crops (see table below). The rotation ensures that vegetables that are compatible with one another stay together and that nutrient recycling within the soil operates optimally. This system works well for us and we use it in our four raised gardens.
We also grow veggies in a reclaimed strip of a former hay field. The field had grown hay for over a decade before we arrived on the property. The hay, however, was losing ground to grasses and weeds and would be turned over by the renters for soybean and corn (we hope to reclaim the remainder of this 7 acre field in time and are currently hatching up a scheme). We wanted to expand our gardening space and knew the soil beneath the hay crop was well over the minimum 3 years without the application of non-organic materials that is necessary for organic certification. It was now or never if we wished to make use of the soil for our gardens. We chose the ‘now’ option and rototilled two 15ft x 30ft rectangles. That was in 2013.
In the past, the crops we grew in the field were those that garden-raiding-herbivores found less palatable. Their favourite delicacies we planted in our raised beds – too high for them to jump/climb into and protected by a fence. Fortunately, we don’t have to contend with deer raiding our garden.
It’s in the field where we grew our squashes, corn, melons and potatoes; crops that needed lots of room to sprawl of that we wanted to produce a larger harvest than a raised bed would accommodate.This year we will use a fence around the garden to keep out our foraging chickens and (hopefully) the rabbits and groundhogs too. The fence will allow us to try to grow the rabbits’ favourites (peas, beans, cabbages, lettuces and beets) and permit us to grow something from each quadrant that Ms. Hall identifies in her article. If the fence works, we can take full advantage of crop rotation in the field garden as well.
The second plot in the field is the site of our permanent crops: asparagus, strawberries and rhubarb. These three perennial crops are traditional plants for a northern homesteader. Once established, and with a little bit of maintenance, they will continue to produce for decades.
In the summer we share our country home with bats. We welcome the work these Big Brown Bats (Eptesicus fuscus) do to control the insect populations. Living across from a large wetland and having a lot of shady gardens, we have an overabundance of mosquitos. During wetter summers they torment us to no end! Given that the bats will eat their own body weight in flying insects during a single night, we gladly welcome these bats.
The mama bats use the barn’s loft as a safe place to raise their young. Typically, such maternity colonies of Big Brown Bats consist of 20 to 300 bats with the majority of the females being related to one another. One evening in May we counted the bats exiting the back of our barn and tallied over 80. Since the females give birth from May through June, all of those bats were mothers. The youngsters still within the barn likely numbered between 80 and 160 (given that the eastern populations of Big Brown Bats tend to have twins, a number closer to 160 young was likely). Our barn could have housed a Big Brown Bat colony of 240 individuals!
We found ourselves in a quandary; we wanted the bats to continue to live alongside us, but did not want them living in our barn and leaving their toxic mess behind. We also know that bats are under attack from a fungus (White Nose Syndrome) that affects their ability to hibernate, leading infected bats to prematurely awaken from hibernation and subsequently die from cold and lack of food. The fungus spreads rapidly throughout the bats as they hibernate together. Being inclined to promoting ecological integrity at our country home, we did not wish to contribute to the demise of the bats by adding habitat destruction to their gauntlet for survival.
A potential problem of removing the colony is that the females will need somewhere to raise their young and if they cannot find an alternative they may leave the area. Their absence will cause a spike in the local insect population for years afterward. To encourage our bats to stay, Dad Harrold built four bat boxes, which female Big Brown Bats can use as maternity colonies. An added attractant to bring the bats to these new boxes is the aroma of the wood… the boxes were built from pine boards recovered from the barn’s loft – complete with bat dropping stains. Hopefully, the returning mama bats will find the smell of these boxes irresistible.
During a mild day in March we hung the new boxes around our property. We had two bat boxes on the south side of our barn which bats already use, so we added another box to the west side of the barn. The other three boxes we hung from large trees where the sun will shine upon them and warm them. Big Brown Bats are traditionally forest dwellers, so we hope they will readily take to the new boxes when they find they cannot enter the barn.
We’re looking forward to spring to learn if our mama bats will move into the boxes. Here’s hoping we still have bats wheeling through the twilight at our country home!
… though I don’t think the Screech Owl roosting on the top of a bat box will be very welcoming.
If you want to be a purist when it comes to organic gardening, it will take more than following a few principles surrounding composting and mulching; you need to consider the plants themselves and the seeds from which they came. Here is some information on the seeds that we grow at Harrold Country Home.
First off, gardening is a lot of work. Organic gardening is even more work, but the rewards are sweeter. And, f you want a truly organic garden, you need to populate it with seeds or seedlings that originated from an organic plant. At Harrold County Home, we plant our vegetable gardens with either seeds purchased from certified organic growers or from seeds we’ve saved ourselves from previous years. This past year we also bought organic seedlings.
Purchased Organic Seeds
To be certified organic, a seed must be grown by a certified organic grower. Certified growers do not expose their seeds to any chemicals during the growth of the parent plant, the harvest of its seeds, or the post-harvest processing. We purchase our seeds from two Ontario suppliers of organic seeds: William Dam Seeds and Terra Edibles. These suppliers sell organic seeds in addition to conventional seeds. We are especially fond of Terra Edibles because they sell primarily heirloom varieties, some of which are hard to find elsewhere.
We like to search out organic and heirloom seeds for our gardens because, well, we enjoy eating the produce, but also because we like to perpetuate seeds with a history. Our ancestors grew these seeds for two main reasons. First, because the plants were so well-suited to the local growing conditions that they could complete their life cycle and leave seeds to propagate the next generation. Second, these seeds are dependable, and when growing food for a family, you want to save and plant the seeds you can depend on.
The seeds our ancestors grew were also tasty! Unlike conventional agriculture, where seeds are treated and bred to produce an easy-to-grow and easy-to-ship commodity, heirloom varieties taste better and are infinitely fresher. I think the best example of this is the tomato. Typical tomatoes – red, glossy orbs – bought at a grocery store are not picked at their ripest (nor tastiest). Instead, the harvest is timed to ensure the fruits remain aesthetically pleasing upon their arrival at the store and while sitting upon the shelf. This means harvest occurs before the fruit is fully ripe. If the tomatoes are too green, a shot of ethylene gas will quickly redden their skins to give the appearance of ripeness while keeping the tomatoes firm enough to withstand the rigors of transportation. In contrast, heirloom tomatoes show greater variety in shape, size, and colour than those bright red spheres we’ve come to think of as tomatoes. And all that variety in appearance coincides with a variety in tastes and uses. The organic heirloom tomatoes that we grow are picked when they are ripe and flavourful and transportation consists of walking from the garden to the kitchen.
Saved Organic Seeds
Purchasing seeds that are certified organic is a good start. Going forward, you can save seeds from your favourite plants and try to sprout them again the following year. We’ve not been too adventurous with seed saving yet; so far we’ve stuck to the easy-to-save seeds from melons and squashes. We simply lay the seeds out on a paper towel to air-dry completely. Then fold them up within the paper towel and put the towel into a small paper envelope, label it and file it away in our seed box.
The pumpkin, butternut and acorn squash seeds I saved from last year did sprout and grow this year. Our daughter was also keen to save and plant some seeds from a grocery store cantaloupe (cantaloupe being her favourite fruit). For the learning opportunity, we grew what is definitely not an organic plant. She helped to plant, nurture, transplant and weed her plant until she was able to pick her very own cantaloupe. The melon was much smaller than its grocery store prodigy, but it definitely looked and tasted like a cantaloupe.
Purchased Organic Seedlings
Where growing from seed is not an option, or very difficult (i.e., herbs), gardeners can plant certified organic seedlings. My basil seeds did not sprout this year. I was anxious to find some organic basil for our garden. Dad found some at Sheridan Nurseries and brought them home as a pleasant surprise for me. I like to grow basil next to the tomatoes to repel some of the tomatoes’ insect pests. We also like to eat the basil as pesto, in a fresh tomato salad or with pasta. Needless to say, I really wanted to find some organic basil plants to compensate for my failure.
Finding organic seedlings can take more searching out than finding organic seeds. The vast majority of seedlings bought from a nursery, unless labelled organic, are sure to have been treated with some form of synthetic pesticides, fungicides, herbicides or fertilizers. Among these treatments are the neonicotinoids; a persistent insecticide that inhibits the ability of bees and other pollinators to navigate, feed or reproduce and increases their susceptibility to diseases. We do not want to grow such plants in our garden and will forgo planting a vegetable, choosing instead to purchase from a local market, if we cannot find an organic source to plant.
If you are what you eat, then we want to feed our family the freshest, healthiest, and most ecologically viable food. The best way to ensure that is to grow it organically ourselves.
I imagine our tree beginning as a feeble seedling struggling to put down roots in the shady forest floor a hands-throw away from the Old Detroit Road. Through its first years it only produces a handful of leaves while waiting for the one-in-a-million chance that a giant, towering above it, will topple. And then it really happens; but not at the hand of wind, ice or old age, but by the thwack of axes.
Recognizing the Old Detroit Road’s military importance, the government of Upper Canada soon upgrade it to a corduroy road; an improvement requiring copious amounts of trees. Soon giants fall in the forest around our struggling seedling. With the sunlight and rain pouring in upon it, our seedling quickly spreads it roots and branches and races to fill the gap. The War of 1812 begins and our tree is witness to British and American forces moving along the road. But all of this is unknown to the tree and it does what it is designed to do; it reaches for the light and grows.
Traffic increases along the road following the war and now stagecoaches, freight wagons and private carriages pass by our tree. But the bone-jarring rides along the corduroy surface precipitate improvements. Our tree is once again passed over in preference for the pines that become planks for the improved roadway, known now as the Stone Road. This new road permits quicker settlement to the area and behind our tree a family establishes itself. In quick succession, our tree’s neighbours all but vanish as the family clears the land and begins to farm. With minimal competition our tree enjoys the power of the sunlight that fuels its growth.
Traffic passing our tree continues to increase and again the roadway requires improvement. If it were aware, our tree could watch the workers pulling up the planks, raking gravel and flattening the roadway. The smoother surface allows farmers to take their produce to markets and now a variety of carts, wagons and buggies pass before our tree as the surrounding countryside becomes more pastoral. The bustling roadway draws the family, and after decades of clearing land and building their farm, they choose to move closer to the Stone Road. One day oxen appear; straining to pull a two-story brick house on log rollers. The oxen draw closer and then turn from the road and pull the house to its new location behind our tree. Over time the tree witnesses the coming and going of the farm’s barns, outbuildings and greenhouses, as well as horse-drawn wagons, tractors, cars and trucks as daily life and farming practices modernize.
The tree celebrates its first centennial as bus services replace stagecoaches and the first personal automobiles appear along the roadway. World War I comes and goes and tractors, cars and trucks replace the horse-drawn traffic. The Depression settles in and the road becomes a make-work project. Its new paved new condition deserves a new name: Brant County Highway #53. World War II arrives and agricultural production in the surrounding landscape intensifies. As the decades continue to march on our tree just keeps on growing ever higher and ever wider. It sees five generations of the pioneering family use the land, modernize, and eventually downsize. It sees the last of the family leave for the final time and a succession of new owners take over. Our tree celebrates its second centennial amid the uncertainty of Y2K.