28 May 2013

Working with the weather

Sometimes it makes perfect sense for me to put food on the table by sitting in front of a computer all day. Other days, it makes much more sense for me to put food on the table by, you know, growing food.

Today was one of those days where I give fervent thanks for the ability to work from home and do both. The weather satellite picture showed a band of rain slowly making its way towards us from Toronto and I had three box-loads of tomato plants which really needed to be put in the ground. I mobilised Mike and before breakfast we had spread chicken manure over one of the long beds in the upper part of the barnyard and planted 62 tomato plants.

Then I was back at my computer, working and watching the rain arrive and stay for most of the afternoon. When I went out in the early evening the tomatoes had been well watered into their new locations and I had time to gather up cut grass and mulch the whole area.

I still need to put some stakes in the bed, but at least the hardest part has been done.

In the greenhouse, my early crop of lettuces are beginning to go to seed. I like the tenaciousness of this one, growing out sideways between the planks of one of the raised beds.

The beans are just starting to emerge from the soil outside. It's been full-on with planting and sowing in the last few weeks, but nearly everything is in the ground, thank goodness. Now it's just the weeding to worry about!

23 May 2013

Glimpses of the distant past

Europeans in North America tend to focus on the history of the continent since Europeans arrived, glossing over the people and civilisations that were here beforehand. A blog post entitled 'What if people told European history like they told Native American history' sums up the problem rather neatly. I hope that particular tide is on the turn, now, but there is still a lot to learn about the people who used to live here.

Last night I went to a fascinating talk by George Reid, who is making valiant efforts to identify the sites of early settlements in Prince Edward County. He is building upon the work of the Reverend Bowen P. Squire, who lived on the north shore of Lake Consecon in the 1950s. An article written by Squire about his findings is available online [PDF] and makes for interesting reading. Squire postulates that this area would have been an easily defensible place to create settlements in and he describes (and illustrates) the site he excavated on his property (which was just a little to the west of ours, I believe). The dam which formed Lake Consecon was built in 1806 - before that, the lake would have been a creek about half the width it is now.

George described how he and his co-investigators are using a combination of Google Earth's satellite imagery and local knowledge of archaeological finds to identify the sites of such settlements around the County's shores. This is one of the images George showed last night:

The image is from 2009 and the paler field on the middle right of the picture is the hayfield at the rear of our farm (with a triangle of woodland just beneath it). In our neighbours' fields on the left and in the centre you can see dark cross-hatching in one of the fields and some dark shapes which George told us represent an old settlement.

The people who lived here were of the Wendat nation (the people dubbed the Huron by French explorers) and George explained that their longhouse settlements were surrounded by palisades and that the whole village would have been moved to a new site periodically once nearby sources of wood for fuel had been exhausted. These villages may have been home to 2,000 people - raising the possibility that the population of the County may have been almost as high then as it is now (around 25,000 people).

The Wendat people lived in this area in the period up to around 1525, according to George, and may have been here for 2,000 years. They would have lived on eels and fish from the creek and Weller's Bay, the wild animals they hunted and the food they grew: corn, beans and squash. I was sowing corn and squash on Monday in a small ploughed-up part of the hayfield in that satellite image. I now wonder if 500 or 1,000 years ago a Wendat woman might have been doing exactly the same thing in exactly the same place.

14 May 2013

May frost

This strawberry plant was touched by this morning's frost. The temperature dipped to about 1°C/34°F.

After a few years of frost damage to our fruit trees, I was concerned that we would have the same problem this year, even though the trees are far less advanced than they were in 2012, where the warm spring made them much more vulnerable to a frost. There is an interesting series of Critical Temperature Charts on the Colorado State University site which explain at which point the fruit is most likely to be damaged by frost. Generally, once the buds are fully opened, a temperature of -2°C/28°F will kill 10% of the flower buds, while -4°C/25°F will kill 90%. That's what happened last year, but we weren't close to that last night, so I'm hopeful.

The apricot tree flowered last week and there are embryonic apricots already visible:

The pear trees are fully in flower right now:

While the apples are at the stage known as 'full pink':

The only crop that was damaged was the asparagus: the visible spears won't be edible. Glad I harvested some for our lunch yesterday!

09 May 2013

Crossing the line

The line I'm thinking of is the one that divides behaviour that is considered quite normal, and behaviour which is viewed as eccentric. The location of the line varies from person to person, of course, and I'm fairly sure that a lot of things I consider perfectly reasonable activities would definitely be on the other side of the eccentricity line for other people. Growing my own food, raising chickens, baking all my own bread, making granola, refusing to buy processed food - that sort of thing. But I crossed my own version of that line in recent months when I started making my own yog(h)urt. I don't know why that seems more eccentric than baking bread (and the two activities are now closely linked, as I'll explain in a minute), but it does. Somehow making yoghurt seems such a 1970s thing to do.

But it's so easy that I've become completely addicted to the process and always have a batch of home-made yoghurt in the fridge. I've delayed blogging about it because of my reservations about it being an odd sort of thing to do.

The initial stimulus for the activity involves another confession (you can see why I delayed writing this post). I'm really bad at throwing out man-made containers like jam jars and yoghurt pots. I have cupboards full of them and they do come in very handy at times, but I really don't need any more. When I read Mimi Spencer's book 101 Things To Do Before You Diet back in February and she explained how simple it was, I was inspired to give it a go. And now I've been re-using the same yoghurt pot for the last three months. Win!

I started out by ordering a sachet of yoghurt culture online. You can just buy a jar of plain active yoghurt as your starter culture and don't need to do this, but I didn't have any to hand at the time. Then you heat some milk to boiling point (I use 2% fat milk) and let it cool down to about 45°C/115°F (if you don't have a thermometer, I read somewhere that at this temperature you should be able to keep your finger in the milk for 20 seconds). Stir three tablespoons of the yoghurt into the warm milk and then pour it into a vacuum flask (at the start of the process I just fill the flask with milk to measure the quantity - hence the lack of precision in these instructions! [I've now measured the quantity and my flask holds a litre/quart of milk]). After a couple of hours the milk will have curdled and you can strain the yoghurt to remove the liquid whey and thicken it up. I use a sieve lined with a coffee filter paper or kitchen paper for this.

Here's the view from the side. You can see the whey underneath the sieve.

I use the whey as part of the liquid I add to my bread - which means that a yoghurt-making day is usually also a bread-making day. But I've also read that tomato plants really like the calcium in whey, so I might use it for that in the summer.

Tonight I'm planning to use the yoghurt to make naan bread and raita to accompany the curry we're having for supper. My stomach is already growling at the thought.

So, do you do anything that you feel crosses your personal eccentricity line? Or is it just me that worries about these things?

05 May 2013

Slim pickings

It dawned on me today that this blog is the twenty-first century way of writing letters home. If I'd emigrated one hundred years ago, I'd be putting pen to paper to share updates about my new life. But the web makes life much simpler: instead of maintaining communication with a range of correspondents I can just update this one location and keep in touch with lots of people all at once.

Having said all that, I think my asparagus harvest to date would hardly have been worth writing home about.

On the other hand, the tomato plants are flourishing:

Just before I left for a trip back to the UK I was draping them with polythene and stacking hot chicken manure underneath them to protect them from the cold. Since I got back on Monday the weather has abruptly turned from winter to summer without the courtesy of a sojourn in spring. The daffodils were over in a few days and the tulips and grape hyacinths were hot on their heels.