Sunday, August 17, 2014

It's a Cool, Cool Summer

So, we've been busy. I realise that we haven't updated this blog since January, and I apologise sincerely for that. Work has a nasty tendency to weasel in and take precedence over fun things (like blogging), and between working on commissioned projects, editing, and tending the house/garden, we're left with little time to take pictures and frolic about in Internet-land.

I suppose it goes without saying that a great deal has happened around here since our last update. After one of the longest winters on record, the snow finally melted in mid May, and the soil outside was warm enough to accept seeds and seedlings in mid June. It had been suggested to us that this would be a cold, wet summer, so we should plant according to that forecast... and I'm delighted that we actually heeded that advice: nights have been cold enough that our Mediterranean plants have failed to thrive, but the hardy greens we tucked into raised garden beds have made it through with flying colours. It actually dropped below 9C a few times over the last few weeks (AUGtober?), so we're lucky that the tomato plants didn't just die outright... but they're really not producing much, nor are they ripening in the pallid sunshine they get in between deluges.

Veteran gardeners say that there's no such thing as a mistake when it comes to gardening, but that every season brings a learning opportunity. Well, since this was our first true growing season out here, we certainly did learn a lot. For example: it would appear that brassicas thrive in our climate, especially in the south-facing, sunny side lot where we've planted them, but if we'd like to be able to eat anything next year, we had better cover the brassica beds with netting so the cabbage butterflies don't get to them before we do. We lost nearly all of our kale plants and half of our Brussels sprouts to caterpillars, so there's a lesson learned.

We've also learned a tremendous amount about the results of companion planting, such as the fact that planting broccoli next to radishes will result in radish-flavoured broccoli (not my favourite thing in the world), and that inundating tomato plants with basil = pre-flavoured tomatoes, which are really quite fabulous. Live and learn, right?

Fortunately, the sandy, acidic soil we have at one end of the property is ideal for berry bushes, so we've had big handfuls of blueberries and raspberries pretty much every day. We're aiming to put a few more bushes in before autumn rolls around (probably a few more blueberry bushes, as well as some blackberries), but we'll wait until next spring to put in the others. We'll be planting about four different species in that particular area and scattering others around the property—mostly around. Ultimately, we have several different perennial berry bushes in mind:
  • Blueberries
  • Blackberries
  • Raspberries (golden, red, and black)
  • Currants (both red and white)
  • Gooseberries
  • Haskap
  • Saskatoon Berries
  • Honeyberries
  • Lingonberries 
  • Jostaberries

We might even try planting a few cranberry bushes in the boggy area at the foot of our property, but we shall see.

Since berry bushes are perennial, we really only have to put a couple of seasons' worth of work into planting these babies and they'll keep spreading and producing forever, so we're aiming for the hardiest species that are best suited to our chilly, forested climate. Perennial food plants of all kinds are ideal, really. So far, we've only planted a few perennial vegetables (Good King Henry, purslane, and chervil), but we'll be expanding that significantly over the next few years.

Having land that slopes so sharply is a bit of a challenge, but we're lucky enough to have some great, sunny, south-facing areas that are pretty much ideal for fruit tree guilds. We're looking for hardy apple tree species at the moment, and hope to cultivate guilds around them with hazelnut bushes, some of those berry species mentioned above, and a few pungent herbs and alliums around the drip line to keep deer and rabbits at bay. Taking advantage of our forested land will also be a lot of fun: there are some huge fallen logs that are just asking to be inoculated with edible mushroom spores, and although stinging nettles are tricky (and occasionally painful) to harvest, these perennials are delicious when cooked. I'm serious! If you can get your hands on some, try them as a substitute for spinach in spanakopita, or in soup.

I didn't get a chance to plant my medicinal herb patch this year, so I'm putting together a hugelkultur mound that'll be ready to plant in next spring. Sure, we already have herbs like yarrow, red clover, mullein, and coltsfoot growing on the property, and I'll be interspersing medicinals in among the other grow beds, but having one dedicated patch where I can grow annual healing herbs will be fantastic... especially since I'll be doing correspondence herbalism courses over the winter (yay!). I've been a lay herbalist for the last twenty years or so, but having solid education in the subject and having an entire forest full of healing plants is something I'm seriously looking forward to.
In the meantime, I've harvested those aforementioned herbs from around our land and have been busy preparing them for teas, tinctures, lozenges, and salves to be used over the coming months: I'll be sharing those recipes soon.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Domesticity and Dispatches

I am continually amazed by how much knowledge has been lost within the past generation or two. If you were to ask the people around them if they knew how to bake a loaf of bread from scratch, darn a sock, make soup stock, or hand-sew a straight seam, chances are that only a scant few will know what you're talking about, and even fewer will be able to do these things themselves.  In this era, bread and socks both come from stores, stock comes in cubes, and why on earth would you ever need to know how to sew anything when you can just buy it?

My close circle of friends may be an exception to this general mindset, as many are either SCAdians or those who cherish self-sufficiency and simple living, but I also have extended family members and general acquaintances who wouldn't know how to prepare a meal that didn't come out of a can, and would have to run to mom in order to have a button sewn back onto a shirt.

Sometimes I wonder what might happen if modern conveniences were suddenly stripped away because of some natural disaster or somesuch.  Take a look at a few things that are sitting around you right now. Is there a bottle of hand cream nearby? Maybe a tube of lip balm? Would you know how to make those from household materials if you needed to?
If your pen wore out, would you know how to use a quill and ink? (Do you even know how to use a pen anymore, now that everyone types their correspondences?) What about cough syrup? 

If you've seen our "Dispatch Ontario" children's activity book series, you've probably noticed that it has a noticeable Victorian lean, and has both recipes and crafts for young folks. When we created them, we were influenced rather strongly by the New Dominion Monthly magazines that were published in Montreal during the later 1800s, and the activities and such that we learned about as we read those magazines certainly inspired and influenced our life out here in rural Quebec: we've begun to work the land to grow our own food, and we cook and bake (nearly) everything from scratch. 

Back in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, most people made the majority of their household products themselves, with the exception of a few luxury items like soap or perfume that may have been purchased from a shop. "Housekeeping" books were quite popular, and included everything from perfume recipes to gardening tips, and had entire sections on what skills to teach children at which age.

I spin yarn, knit/crochet, sew, and mend our clothes, and my newfound love of canning is nothing shy of obsessive. Just a scant 100 years ago, the average person would have known all kinds of skills like these, and it's sad to think that many of them might be lost merely because modern convenience has taken precedence over homemade craft.

Interestingly enough, these skills would have come in amazingly handy when we were younger, and we like to hope that some of the crafts and recipes we share with our young readers might pique their curiosity as far as self-sufficiency and such are concerned.

On that very note, we've been asked by a few people if there will be more volumes in the series, and we'd like to reassure you that yes—we are working on new material that we hope to release in 2014. 
Our move to Quebec (and an assortment of projects) have kept us busy for quite a while, but we've missed the Ani.Mals, fae folk, and such that we got to know while creating these books, so stay tuned for their re-emergence in releases that will now under the umbrella of Dispatch Canada.

Stay tuned!