Thursday, April 30, 2009

Bloodroot blossoms end, red trilliums open, fruit trees, berries, rain & rubber boots...

We've been making the most of our woodland (shady) areas of the yard - of which we have quite a bit. It's the perfect habitat for native plants, woodland flowers (we are so fortunate to have the red trillium and bloodroot grace us as a harbinger of spring each year), wild rose, wild leeks, wild ginger, trout lilies, day lilies, and our shiitake mushroom logs - and we learn a little more about woodland gardening each year. Mainly it takes care of itself, as nature does.

Planted out the willow, red dogwood, and forsythia which I've been rooting in jars of water in our house. I hope these plants will take to the soil, and have visions of slowly establishing a small tree nursery here in future (still have a large jar of acorns, walnuts, hazelnuts and heartnuts in our fridge). I've ordered a Chicago Fig tree from Richters, which should be arriving any week, and this will be added to our growing nut/fruit orchard dispersed throughout our property - the pears, plum, apples, and cherries are all blossoming now, and the hazelnut is budding, small though it still is. I love the idea of leaving this property filled with food sources for future owners. We also have the red & black currents, gooseberries, blueberries, raspberries, grapes, strawberries (more Alpine strawberries coming shortly for the front yard), and I'm looking for a good source of elderberries.

First spring salad from the coldframe

Enjoyed our first harvest of fresh greens (spinach, arugula, dandelion, various salad varieties, chives, oregano, cilantro) from the coldframe tunnel. What a treat - celebrated with a bottle of 100-mile Niagara wine and homebaked wood-fired oatmeal bread! We also dropped off a bag of freshly harvested greens to friends around the corner who have been eating a strictly 100-mile diet for the past year, with one month left to go. We've been impressed by how they've managed to do this, including grains, flour, protein sources, etc. We will be joining the 100 mile challenge this summer (100 people for 100 days, eating 100 mile diet) and hope to glean some ideas from these friends on where to source out the best in local varieties.

Homestead Herbals new logo design - from artist Jill Bliss

Homestead Herbals, our natural soap & herbal products business, is getting a new look. We are happy to have one of our favourite artists (Jill Bliss) on board, designing a fresh and simple new logo for us. We came across her work through her hand-drawn cards that feature native plants and flowers - in her beautiful & unique style. Jill was graciously willing to do a part barter for her services, something we always love to do. We'll show samples of our products, complete with the new logo, here shortly and will finally be launching our etsy store in May!

Check out Jill's website at:
Etsy store coming soon:

Green Goods & Homesteading suppliers

Just got the latest Berry Hill Farm catalogue in the mail today. This store (both online and in-person) features hand-powered, country living, and sustainability goods, as well as various homesteading supplies for the hobby farm, the garden, the kitchen and otherwise. It's not as extensive as the Lehman's Hardware in the US (which caters to the Amish community and has an outstanding selection of non-electric goods), but it much more local (near London, Ontario). The catalogue features a full array of goods for the urban (or rural) homestead - everything from handcrank grainmills & pasta makers, to Pioneer Maidwood cookstoves, solar powered radios to garden tools, canning sets, maple syrup supplies, beekeeping supplies, egg brooders and yogurt makers, to cast iron cookware like pots, pans and waffle irons. We'll be browsing this catalogue, making a few selections - maybe we'll finally splurge on a handcrank icecream maker as we plan to make our own icecream later this summer to celebrate Maya's first birthday.

Find more info on various hand-powered, sustainable living and eco supplies at:

Berry Hill Fam -
Mother Earth News -
Peddler's Wagon(Green Goods for the Urban Homestead) -
Lehman's Hardware -
Lee Valley -
Real Goods (Solar and Renewable Energy Eco Household goods) -

Little City Farm at Hillside Festival!

We're excited to have received news that we've been selected as one of the environmental workshop presenters for the 2009 Hillside Festival. This is an amazing little gem of a music festival, tucked away on a small island in Guelph Lake conservation area, which we've been attending for 15+ years by now. Join us July 25 & 26 as we present our workshop on Urban Homesteading: Sustainable Living in the City. More details will be posted on the Hillside website soon -

Festival tickets go on sale Sat, May 2.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A new use for old tires - growing 100 lbs of potatoes in four feet of space

Yesterday on CBC, Ed Lawrence (gardening guru) talked about how to grow massive amounts of potatoes in a tiny amount of space. By growing vertically we can substantially increase our yield, even in a small urban yard. Here is another article, taken from Back Woods Home Magazine, that outlines how to build a raised potato garden out of old tires. There is certainly some debate about whether growing food in old tires could be hazardous to our health - and so these potato stacks could be made out of barrels or wooden crates as well. However, tires being an abundant resource in our cities, they seem the perfect permaculture approach to using what we have at hand.

A new use for old tires - (excerpt from Back Woods Home Magazine)

There are mountains of old tires out there. Americans keep on rolling and tires keep on wearing out. Every year there is almost one scrap tire created for every man, woman, and child in the United States. In 2001 alone, Americans discarded nearly 281 million tires, weighing some 5.7 million tons. All of those old treads can provide a lot of good growing space, and we’re just the folks to put them to use.

There is no appreciable risk in using recycled tires in the vegetable garden. While it is a fact that rubber tires do contain minute amounts of certain heavy metals, the compounds are tightly bonded within the actual rubber compound and do not leach into the soil. One of the ingredients in the rubber recipe is zinc. Zinc, in fact, is an essential plant element. I also expect that rubber is safer to use than treated lumber that contains copper and arsenic. Tires are durable. The very qualities that make them an environmental headache make them perfect for our uses in the garden. Once they are in place, they won’t rot and will likely be there for your grandchildren to use.

Let’s take a look at some ways to recycle old tires and literally reap the benefits. Gardening with recycled tires has many benefits besides those directly with the garden itself. It puts to use an article that might otherwise end up in a landfill or other disposal site. Those of us who are into “growing our own” are often on the lookout for ways to increase production with a minimum of effort. Gardening with tires presents several good ways to do just that, while at the same time helping to recycle the old treads from our automobiles and other wheeled conveyances. Stop by your local service station, recycle center, or tire retailer and ask them to save some tires for you. Currently, dealers charge $2 or more to dispose of used tires. Since they charge the consumer to take the old tires and have to pay to have them disposed of, they will likely be happy to let you have all you want. Most tire centers will have a stack of old tires out back that they will give you permission to root through.

A rubberized hotbed

As winter’s icy grasp finally begins to slip, the homesteader who has not kept a little something growing all winter is surely thinking about getting a few seeds stuck into the ground. After a long winter of dried, canned, frozen, or store-bought fresh vegetables, a mess of fresh veggies would taste mighty good. One of the easiest and earliest ways to get those first lettuce and spinach salads growing is to use an old method that has been common practice around these parts for generations.

Folks around here often get those first salad greens going in a planter made from an old tire. For my own planter, I utilized the old tread from a log skidder to give me plenty of size and depth. For a project of this type, I’d recommend a fairly large one, such as a rear tire off of a farm tractor or from a log skidder like I used.

After laying the tire at the spot where I wanted it, I used a utility knife to cut the sidewall completely out of the upper side. This was fairly easy to do, and nearly doubled the planting area available. But do it carefully, and consider using some leather gloves as protection against the knife blade.

Once I removed the sidewall, I filled the tire with some good compost on top of a six-inch layer of fresh manure and seeded my lettuce and spinach. The heat generated by the manure’s decomposition helped to heat the seedbed from below. The whole thing was covered with some old storm windows obtained for the purpose by some creative scrounging. The result was a fine durable hot bed and the only cost involved was for the seed.

Raising the roots

One of the best ways to grow vegetables, especially in cool climates, is to grow them in raised beds. Let’s look at some of the benefits of raised bed gardening and how the method is a great way to use old tires:

  • When the soil is elevated, it warms faster. Raised bed gardens can increase spring soil temperatures by 8 to 13° F over the adjacent soil temperatures at ground level. The black, heat-absorbing tires compound the warming effect.
  • It dries out more quickly. These rubberized raised beds are helpful in improving water drainage in heavy clay soils or in low-lying areas. The soil is more exposed, and sun and wind help to dry and warm the soil more quickly.
  • It provides deeper soil for root crops to develop.
  • You can plant earlier in the season and get your plants off to a healthier and earlier start. This is especially true in cooler climates where spring rains often keep vegetable garden soil wet and cold. In containers such as our tires, excess moisture tends to drain away more quickly and the soil remains warmer, thus allowing for earlier planting.
  • You can harvest later into the fall.
  • Because of the longer growing season, you have the possibility of growing a wider range of vegetables.
  • Using these beds, you can concentrate a greater number of plants in a smaller area. This will result in less weeding and greater production.

Finally, and not insignificantly, raised bed gardening puts plants and soil back into the reach of older gardeners or others who cannot do a lot of bending as required with an ordinary garden.

In the greenhouse

Here is one way we have used tires in our own small greenhouse. Along the front wall we placed short stacks of tires and filled them with sand. The dark color of the tires serves to absorb heat, and the sand contained in each stack helps to store it. Atop each stack was placed another tire with the upper sidewall removed as already described.The top tire was then filled with compost and soil

then seeded in lettuce, spinach, or whatever.

We’ve also found that, in the greenhouse, they make a fine planter for an extra-early or late tomato plant. Since our greenhouse is attached to my garage and shop, I utilized an existing window opening, the woodstove in the garage, a window fan, and a timer to add heat to it. Between our tire planter, keeping a fire going in the garage—which I often do anyway—and timing the fan to turn on as the day begins to cool, we have been able to pick the last tomato off of the vine on Christmas Eve.

Jump start your tomatoes

By the same token, you can get a jump on the spring growing season by creating a mini-greenhouse, of sorts, for a few tomato plants. Once you have a stack or two of tires in place, set your tomato plants in each stack. Next, place a wire hoop or tomato cage in place around the plant. Cover the cage with clear plastic and secure it with duct tape, twine, etc. If you have them available, you can place an old windowpane over the top of this tomato tower. The combination of the black rubber tires and the clear plastic “greenhouse” will cause the plant to grow quickly.

You will need to monitor the heat and health of the young plants carefully to make sure they aren’t getting too much of a good thing. Once the plant is really growing and the chance of frost is past, simply remove the plastic and allow the plant to use the wire cage to support its branches, which will soon be laden with fruit.

You can add months to your growing season using this method alone.

Tire compost bin

Used tires can also be made into a good compost bin. Begin with a half dozen or so tires as large as you can handle. Large truck tires work well. Cut the sidewalls out of both sides using the sharp utility knife. You will end up with rubber rings of tire treads. After you have several of the hoops made, place one on the spot where you want your bin to be located. Be sure to turn the soil on the spot where you place the bin. This better exposes the composting material to the bacteria, earthworms, and other compost builders. As you fill the first tire hoop, merely place another atop it and fill it. Repeat the process until you have them stacked five or six high. You can keep filling tires with garden and kitchen scraps and other compost fixin’s or just start another pile.

  • After the compost has worked for several weeks, remove the top hoop and place it on the ground beside the original bin. Fork the top layer of composting material into this hoop. Remove the next hoop and place it atop the one on the ground and move the plant material into it. Repeat until you have the whole compost heap turned and transferred into the restacked hoops, one at a time. Note that in the process you have completely turned the working compost pile from top to bottom, perfect for producing good compost in record time. After several more weeks, the compost should be getting that good earthy smell and will be ready to use.

Potato stacks

When I was a youngster, I used a hoe to ridge up rows and rows of potatoes, pulling the soil up around the plants to help increase their yield. I have since learned of an easier way to grow potatoes that doesn’t require any hoeing—just plant a vertical potato patch. If you are limited in space, then this method is especially beneficial. You can grow a nice crop of spuds in just a few tires. Here’s how:

Generally, a stack of four or five tires that are progressively filled with some good compost and a couple of pounds of seed potatoes will produce around 25 pounds of potatoes. A few of these stacks can provide your winter’s supply of potatoes with no problem.

To begin, pick a spot that is out of the way and perhaps out of sight where you can stack your tires. Loosen the soil just enough to allow for some drainage and place the first tire. Fill it with soil, being sure to fill the inside of the tire casing as well. Take your seed potatoes and cut them into pieces that have at least two “eyes,” or sprout buds in each piece. It doesn’t hurt to let each piece dry for a day or two before planting it. Plant three or four cut potato sets into the soil in the tire center. Cover the sets with enough soil to bring it level with the top of the opening.

Once the new potato plants get to be about eight inches tall, add another tire and add soil around the plants until just a couple of inches of the tops are above the soil. Repeat this process for the third and subsequent tires. As you add tires and soil to the ‘tater stack, the plant stalk is covered with soil. As you do this, the existing stalk will send off roots as well as grow upward to once again find the sunlight it needs. Since you are gradually raising the soil level eight inches or so at a time, the plant is able to keep growing without suffocating. At the same time, you are creating a 24- to 36-inch tap root off of which many lateral roots will develop. Each of the lateral roots can produce additional potatoes at three or four levels instead of only one. When you water the plant, be sure that the soil is thoroughly moistened all the way down to the base of the pile. Since the tires also act as an insulator and heat sink for your potatoes, the added warmth will stimulate the lateral roots to multiply more quickly, giving you more potatoes. To harvest your crop, wait until the top dries up and begin to remove the tires, working your way down the stack and harvesting the potatoes as you go.

Great walls of tires

Tires can even be used to create retaining walls to stabilize an earth bank. When using them for this purpose, begin by laying a level course of tires. Fill these tires completely with sand, soil, or gravel. Try to eliminate any holes or pockets in the tires that might provide a haven to vermin like mice or rats. Atop the first course of filled tires, add another row, positioning them one-quarter to one-third of the way back on the first course. This will give the wall some slope and add stability. Also, place the tires with staggered joints, that is, in bricklayer-fashion. That will add a lot of stability as well. Once several courses of these rubber building blocks are in place, the wall should be very solid and immovable.

If you choose to, remove the upper sidewall of each tire before you put it in place, and fill it with soil. Not only will it make filling the tires easier, but it will also make space available to place some ground cover plants that can grow and cover the wall. You may consider even setting strawberry plants in the spaces.

All-terrain planters

Try using old tires from riding mowers and all-terrain-vehicles (ATVs) for planters. They can be used right on the deck, porch, or patio and can hold plants such as cherry tomatoes, peppers, flowers, herbs, and other compact plants. They are smaller and therefore more portable than large tires and can fit in most any out-of-the-way spot.

  • Check out a tire dealer, lawn tractor dealer, or ATV dealer to locate some of the used low-pressure tires. Take one of the tires and cut the sidewall as described for the hotbed. Using a

drill, bore three holes around the open end of the “bowl.” Space the holes equally around the rim and drill them about a half-inch from the top edge.

You may wish to place your planters around on a low wall or rail, but you can also attach a hanger from which to suspend the planter. Using three pieces of workable wire about 26 to 28 inches long, attach one wire in each of the three holes. Bring the wires together at the top and twist about 2 to 3 inches together into a hook. That will serve as the planter hanger.

Now, cut a piece of hardware cloth to fit in the bottom of the planter. Place a thick layer of grass, moss, or even a chunk of old carpet into the bottom, on top of the hardware cloth. Fill to the top with soil, and you are ready to set your plants. These are especially handy for growing cherry tomatoes or the attractive Thai pepper plants.

Tiers of tires

Another nifty planter for small spaces can be made by stacking four tires of different sizes into a sort of pyramid. Begin with one each of the following sized tires: A farm tractor tire; a tire from a large truck; an automobile tire; and an ATV tire. Cut the sidewall out of each. Place the tractor tire where you want it and fill it with soil. Position the next largest tire, the truck tire, evenly atop the tractor tire. Fill it, too, with soil. Next, put the automobile tire in place and fill it. Finally, place the ATV tire atop the pile and fill it with soil. You will end up with a multi-layered vertical garden that is useful for strawberries, bush cucumbers, varieties of low flowers, and many other types of plants. With some imagination, you can have plants cascading down the sides of this planter.

On a larger scale

If your place is a bit larger than just a plot and garden, you may find more uses for old tires. Here are just a couple of ideas:

Over in the neighboring Amish settlement, I see many horse feeders made by cutting the sidewall out of a tire off of a large payloader or other machine with wide, heavy tires. They are deep enough to hold a lot of hay, and even the largest Belgian horse cannot damage them. They would make an equally large and roomy planting bed for flowers or vegetables.

You can make a really good pasture drag by bolting some tires together and connecting them to a single beam to be pulled behind the tractor, team, or even the pickup truck or ATV. The handy homemade drag will make it much easier to break up and distribute the cowflops that accumulate in the pasture. Scattering the cowpies spreads the fertilizer they contain and prevents hot spots and clumps of pasture grass.

More uses for old tires

  • Use single rows of tires and use mulch or gravel between rows. You will have easy access to all sides of your plants and will keep weeding to a minimum.
  • When doing any of these projects, it’s okay to use tires of different sizes. Exposed spaces can be used to tuck a plant into.
  • Set blackberries, raspberries, and other brambles out in rows of tires—one plant to a tire. They will benefit from the same “raised bed” principle and will be easier to prune back and to mulch.
  • If you can place a few tires in a row along a wall or garden edge, try adding a heavy wire cattle panel or simply a length of woven fence wire as a trellis for vining plants to climb. You can save a lot of space by growing beans, cucumbers, squash, gourds, and other climbers this way.
  • When arranging three or four tires in a square or triangle, make use of the space between the tires instead of just mulching it. Just fill it with compost and add another plant or two. You will gain another square foot or so of good growing space.
  • Go commercial. With a serious rubberized garden, it would be possible to supply every restaurant and grocery store for miles around. Organically grown fresh garden vegetables are always in demand. If you go big and create a growing patch of 50 to 100 tires, you can produce hundreds of pounds of vegetables and some good income. For example, with tomatoes selling for 50 cents a pound or more, you can make good money from your “tired” tomato patch. Starting them in the tires will help you to get them to marketable size earlier than other locally grown competition.
Using old tires is a great way to recycle. It’s also a wonderful way to make the most of a small garden plot and generally increase your garden yield. Try some of these ideas, and I’m certain you’ll see good results.

greenhouse brimming with seedlings - getting ready for may 23 sale!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

blooming earth festival

We had a busy day yesterday, celebrating "earth day" with the Blooming Earth Festival at our local farmers market. We were part of a large handmade market that showcased 30-40 vendors making all manner of handmade goods - with the emphasis on natural, upcycled, or organic products. A few photos above show our display. Greg made the display cases out of wood that is over 100 years old, which was salvaged from a renovation job he worked on! He's been saving it for just the right project and this was it. We had soaps, salves, teas and you can see the new organic buckwheat dream pillows.

We got up around 5 am (I have great respect for all the local farmers who do this every week for market!), and in the just breaking dawn surrounded by spring bird song and an otherwise sleeping city we headed downtown with our bike trailer loaded full of our products, and baby bundled into her stroller. It felt empowering to be able to walk with everything we needed for the booth and display, rather than having to depend on a vehicle. It made us think about doing walking vacations, where we simply pack up our bike trailer with tent, sleeping bags and food and head out the door. We hope to do some of this kind of walking (or bicycling) vacation this summer.

Thanks to everyone who stopped by our booth - it was nice to have such community support, and all those extra hugs for baby Maya! We had many conversations about city chickens, as there are plenty of people curious about what it's like to have a few hens and how they might get some for themselves. We are always happy to talk about our urban homesteading projects, and hope that we can inspire others to try some of these aspects in their own lives. Even what may seem like small steps, for example gardening a few tomatoes in a container on the front porch, committing to buying local, naturalizing your front lawn, or setting up a few more rain barrels, is worthwhile and part of the ongoing urban homesteading journey.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Homeopathic First Aid Workshop

Had an informative intro to homeopathy workshop here on Saturday - the topic specifically being "homeopathic first aid". Rachel Vandenberg of Healing Path Centre for Natural Medicine here in town led the workshop - fortunately we had such fine weather we could have it outdoors - which seemed fitting for a first aid workshop on natural remedies. She gave participants a good understanding of a handful of useful "key" remedies to have on hand, and recommended we keep mini first aid kits with these homeopathics as well as instruction cards, on hand (in our homes, in our backpacks for outdoor excursions, etc). The main remedies she discussed were for common ailments that don't need the indepth constitutional analysis that homeopathic/naturopathic doctors also use when assessing patients. Here's the first aid kit:

Aconite - for sudden onset of shock, anxiety, restlessness or even taking this at the first sign of a flue or cold

Apis - for bee stings, tender, burning, swollen wounds

Arsenicum - food poisoning, vomiting, diarrhea

Arnica - for mechanical injuries, bruises, sore muscles (e.g. overexertion)

Belladonna - sunstroke, sudden fever, burning skin

Calendula - for cuts to the soft tissue, superficial healing of skin

Cantharsis - for blisters and burns

Chamomilla - irritability during teething, common cold with irritability

Hypericum - for deeper wounds to nerve-rich areas, injuries to spine, or falling on tailbone

Ledum - for bruises, puncture wounds, injury to eye area

Nux Vomica - for ailments from too much of anything (food, alcohol, etc)

Rhus Tox - for red swollen itchy blisters, poison ivy, sprained joints

Ruta - for sprains, and pulled tendons

Symphytum - broken bones

Urtica Urens - sunburn, injuries that burn, itch, sting or swell into a raised area

Wild ramps/leeks

Thanks to friends who dropped off a big bag of wild leeks / aka. wild ramps this afternoon! Their family wildcrafts these leeks every spring and have several special secret locations where they know leeks can be found in the city at this time of year! This is common practice out in Quebec, and prized by chefs, and yet, here surprisingly few people seem to know about them.

What a treat - such a pungently garlic, onion and leek taste, mixed with earthy, herby and green - we promptly chopped some fresh into a salad we were taking to a potluck that evening. Since the wild leeks/ramps had fortunately been brought to us roots and all, nicely sealed in a bag with a little damp soil, we also planted out several batches of the leeks into a shady woodland area of our yard in hopes we will have our own source of special spring leeks in future years.

Bread in cob oven

Spent all of this past weekend outside - the weather was amazing - upto 21 C on on day, and sunny! Bare toes were out, sweaters off, sunhats on...

We seeded onion sets, carrots, swiss chard, radish, cilantro, fava beans, snow peas into the garden beds after they were prepped with compost and cleared of last year's mulch. We weeded the cold frames, picked arugula, chives and greens for a fresh salad, and ate our lunch outdoors on the patio. In the greenhouse we continued with transplanting, having completed the hundreds of tomatoes, and now moving on to kale, broccoli, peppers, basil, and other herbs. We also planted seeds of zucchini, squash, pumpkin and cucumbers in flats, which will be ready in time for the May seedling sale. Busy, exciting time of the year. We are grateful for longer days...the sun is now rising around 6:30 am and setting after 7 pm and we still have about two months of longer days to come.

While we were gardening we decided to fire up the cob oven - I had made up several batches of bread dough earlier in the morning, and it was on it's first rising. If a good fire is made during this time, letting it burn large and hot during the two bread rising stages, it gives just enough length of heat to bake a large batch of bread and some cookies, and doesn't make for too long a day tending fire. After only about 20 minutes of actual baking time we came out with 6 tasty loaves of bread - cornmeal, caraway rye, oatmeal sunflower, flax & sesame, ready just in time for making sandwiches with the fresh greens for our lunch break. Mmm....

Spring weekend at the homestead

Thursday, April 16, 2009

First campfire of the season

A few days ago, when the weather was so lovely that we had spent all day outside and couldn't bring ourselves to head back into the house, we decided to have our first campfire of the season (and baby Maya's first campfire ever). Throughout the summer-fall we spend many many evenings outdoors, cooking over the fire and eating on our back patio. It's an easy way to relax, tend to the fire while harvesting or weeding in the garden until dusk, pick produce off the vine which goes directly into the cooking pot, and eat a great hot meal without having to heat up our house. We often bake in the cob oven as well, and when all the bread is done, transfer our leftover embers into the campfire pit where we can watch the fire while sipping homemade wine or hot cups of cider. Here's to warmer weather and more evenings outdoors!

100 Mile-Diet, 100 People, 100 Days

Our friends Michael and Rachel over at Healing Path Centre for Naturopathic Medicine in uptown Waterloo, are launching a 100-Mile diet project for this summer. They hope to start sometime this coming July, and hopefully gather 100 (or more) interested people who are willing to eat locally for 100 days. As they are both naturopaths, they also plan to lead workshops on local nutrition, herbal medicine, healthy cooking, and so forth, as well as organize a few group potlucks, canning bees, harvest parties, and get-togethers. They are working on a new blog that will give opportunity for those involved to write about their experiences sourcing local food, putting food away for the winter, sharing recipes and other ideas. To sign up or learn more go to: (blog soon to be ready)

How much techonology (and what kind) is enough?

As mentioned, I'm doing more reading than usual these days, as I spend time sitting and nursing our daughter on the couch. What a luxury to read like never before - as in the past I just haven't had the "time", or managed to make it the priority that it could be. How lucky to have a child teach us to slow down...

Currently I'm reading Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology by Eric Brende. Eric, who is a graduate student of MIT, asks the question "how much technology (and what kind) is enough?" He decides to embark on a real-life experiment, and with his partner goes to live for 18 months in an Amish community. Here they learn how to live without electricity, running water, how to garden, preserve for the winter, drive a horse & buggy, farm with a team of drafat horses, and birth their first child at home with a local midwife. It's an inspiring read, sprinkled liberally with philosophy, commentary on Thoreau, new urbanism, history of the industrial revoluation, and with plenty of ideas on how we can all reduce our dependence on technology, and probably come out feeling more relaxed, happy, resourceful, creative, valueing community connections, saving money - and having more time. He makes a remarkable observation about the quality of time - "and this explained not only why time moved more slowly but also why we had more of it, why we were able to relax and read the way we were doing right now: in the absensce of fast-paced gizmos, ringing phones, alarm clocks, television, radios, and cars, we could simply take our time. In being slower, time is more capacious. The event is only in the moment. By speeding through life with technology, you reduce what any given moment can hold. By slowing down, you expand it."

He gives an example of washing clothes in a handcrank wringer-washer - a task that only takes about 3 minutes per load (200 turns is one good washing they are told), uses minimal water and zero electricity. When I think of all the loads of cloth diapers we are washing these days and read our current electricity bill (which seemed excessively high this month, due to using grow lights for our hundreds of seedlings in the house, and all that laundry washing) I too wonder about the feasibility of more human-powered devices in our home. One friend we know designed an entire laundromat to be powered by bicycle, with customers pedalling to each wash their laundry load. Add a little cafe on the side and this would become the perfect community gathering place!

By no means does Eric conclude that we need to do away with all technology. In fact, he realizes the Amish use all kinds of technology (e.g. water pumps, Pioneed Maid woodstoves, handcrank washing machines, various implements and tools for farming), but that which uses minimal resources to make, can be easily fixed by the user (or is made to last), and is fit to its purpose. Interestingly, Eric and his partner end up moving to a small town where they can garden, barter for extra produce and eggs, get around without a car (he runs a rickshaw and makes soap for a living now), and live out their new homesteading skills as urban homesteaders. Seems like urban homesteading is a way to get the best of both worlds, and we are seeing more homesteaders like this all the time.

Several years after his "experimental" time living in the Amish community, Eric concludes his book and ends with these with wise words:
"There really is no end to the possible uses of technology, nor are there limits to finding a way around it; but in all cases it must serve our needs, not the reverse, and we must determine these needs before considering the needs for technology. The willingness and the wisdom to do so may be the hardest ingredients to come by in this frenetic age. Perhaps what is needed most of all, then, are conditions favourable to them: quiet around us, quiet inside us, quiet born of sustained meditation and introspection. We must set aside time for it...Only when we have met this last requisite, I suspect, will technology yield its power and become a helpful handservant. Mary and I still turn on the kerosene lamp and read by the fire on a cold winter's eve. By switching off the electric light, I think we see a bit better."

Transplanting Seedlings

We've spent the last few days transplanting our hundreds of tomatoes! We have over 600 tomato plants - a little crazy, but I couldn't resist trying all kinds of unique and familiar varieties - and our greenhouse will be filled to the brim with flats once these and the other herbs & veggies are all transferred into their larger pots ready for selling. With the weather being sunny and warm (15-18C) the greenhouse has been cooking - over 35C, hot and perfect for those tomatoes. At night the temperatures still dip down to 10C or so, but this is just the limit for the young seedlings to be alright. It's magical to walk into the greenhouse, which is a shimmering new green with rows and rows of plants, smelling earthy and warm, with the beds also filled with fresh greens for eating. We feel lucky to have this space and would definitely recommend a greenhouse or coldframe of some shape to any would-be urban (or of course non-urban) homesteader.

Crafting projects

As our baby is growing and becoming a little more independent, I'm finding more time for crafting projects while I have her playing beside me. Having a child also brings out the desire to create beautiful things for her - sew clothing, make natural toys, bake healthy teething snacks, knit hats, quilt blankets - hopefully some items that will become special heirlooms to be passed on. I'm also doing a lot more reading these days, and have come across a variety of great books on handmade life, including crafting that revives these kinds of traditional skills. Making these items is satisfying in so many ways - saving money, creating beautiful long-lasting artful objects to be used around the house, spending relaxing time working with your hands on a concrete task, and it can be done with kids helping or creating beside you. At this stage, Maya "plays" along beside me, unwinding balls of yarn, playing peekaboo with fabric scraps, inspecting pinecones, testing out the feel of a pencil in hand, and teething on soft wool pieces.

Two books I've found inspiration in are:

The Creative Family, by Amanda Blake Soule (she also writes a wonderful richly inspiring blog with gorgeous photography, about her handmade home and creative life with her 4 homeschooled/unschooled kids - Amanda Blake Soule has also written another book, The Handmade Home, due out in August this year.

Bend the Rules Sewing, by Amy Karol is another book that has simple, funky patterns for small projects like baby blankets, child's clothing, bags, and more. I'm currently working on a small quilt using one of her patterns - the secret to making quilts look "antique" is to wash the fabric after it's sewn together, creating a wrinkled look that is quite attractive to the vintage-lovers eye.

So, I've dusted off my sewing machine and the first project was to create a small quilt piece for my cousins who are expecting their first child in May. They have requested all interested family members to send in a quilt square, to be incorporated into a family quilt. Nice idea! Here's a photo of mine. Next, my own quilt and a few baby summer clothes and knitted cap for Maya, and then the crafting will have to take a break as garden season arrives in full force.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

spOtlight festival full workshop descriptions

Plants, Roots & Fibres: Natural Fibre Arts & Herbal Crafts
Sat, June 6 from 10 am-5 pm (final workshop starts at 4 pm)

Location: Little City Farm, 508 Duke St. W, Kitchener (near Duke & Waterloo St)
Pre-registration suggested (some workshops have limited space)
Dress for the weather as we will spend some workshop time outdoors.
To register contact Karin at: OR 519-575-9174

10 am – Natural Plant Dyes – with Karin Kliewer (

Learn to use common plants, roots, bark and berries (such as marigold, rhubarb, black walnut, and elderberry) for dyeing cotton, wool and silk fibres. During this workshop we will demonstrate the 5 stages of the natural dye process: washing the fibre, preparing the dye bath, the mordant process, the dyeing process, and rinsing & drying.

11 am – Spinning, Carding & Natural Fibres - with Nicole Ethier

This workshop will introduce participants to the craft of spinning using a spinning wheel. In addition to teaching the basics of spinning fibre into yarn, participants will learn about a variety of animal fibres and will receive a brief introduction to fibre preparation using a technique called hand carding.

1 pm – Wet-Felting - with Amaryah deGroot (

Learn how to turn unspun wool into flat felt pieces using hand felting techniques, soap, and water! The finished felt can be shaped and sewn into tea cozies, mitts, bags, embellishments, and more. Materials will be provided, as well as patterns for a variety of simple projects.

2 pm – Herbal Oils & Salves - with Heather Cain

Learn how to make infused herbal oil and an herbal salve with the “simpler’s method” used by traditional European herbalists. We will incorporate common and easy-to-grow plants, including “weeds” that are often considered garden pests. Making your own herbal remedies is an opportunity to connect with the healing energy of nature and to take responsibility for your own health.

3 pm – Cold-Process Soapmaking – with Karin Kliewer (

Learn the simple art of traditional cold-process soapmaking. In this workshop we will demonstrate how to blend a variety of vegetable-based oils with botanicals and pure essential oils, to create beautiful, long-lasting handmade soap that is rich in healthful therapeutic properties.

4 pm – Papermaking – with Misha Gingerich This workshop will teach people, through participation, the ancient craft of how to draw, couch and press a piece of paper using a mould and deckle. We will use pulp made from natural fibres and add dried botanicals for aesthetic value. Once paper is made, it can be used for other traditional crafts such as bookbinding and marbling.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Bloomin Earth Festival at the Kitchener Market, April 25

As part of City of Kitchener's "Living Earth Festival" there are all kinds of eco activities going on during the week of Earth Day (April 22)...

Bloomin Earth makes it's second annual debut, this time at the Kitchener Market on Sat, April 25 from 8 am-2 pm. Check out vendors, eco exhibitors, kids activities, eco crafting workshops and more! Their website has more details at:

We plan to be there, with info on Little City Farm activities, urban homesteading/agriculture, as well as soaps and other handmade products from Homestead Herbals. Hope to see many familiar and new faces at our booth - stop by to say hi!

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Spring Greens Meal Today

It was a taste of spring today, that's for sure! The weather must have been 15C, sunny (even almost hot if you were digging in the garden, or working outside!). It seemed everyone in the whole neighbourhood was out - jogging, walking dogs, even mowing lawn, planting peas, listening to music, and just enjoying the outdoors again without winter coats and hunched shoulders to the wind. We had laundry drying out on the line, did a little spring cleaning in our barn, raked out the garden beds and uncovered our garlic tips (planted last fall, and just poking out of the ground now), put our fish back into the pond, took a long walk with our dog looking for signs of spring, and had a leisurely lunch outside on our patio.

A neighbour dropped by to inspect out coldframe grow tunnel, as she was in the process of building one today in her own backyard. We had planted greens in the coldframe last fall, and today was our first real harvest! Fresh dandelion greens, arugula, chives, cilantro and garlic shoots, which all went into a lovely pasta dish for lunch. The dish included these spring greens, local onions, mushrooms, and goat feta, Ontario hemp oil, our own sundried tomatoes, garlic and some dried herbs. Was it ever good - we've been craving greens and the season seems to be near! Over the next month or two it's also time to eat our way through the leftover strawberries, beans and peas in our freezer, and the last canned tomatoes, peaches and applesauce on our shelf, making space for the new foods to come.

Great Sunflower Project

A friend just sent us a link to the Great Sunflower Project and we've joined this venture of planting sunflowers and watching bee activity this summer. The idea is for participants to track bees (by watching and recording their activity at the sunflowers in the garden), recording this information online, and from this data to better be able to understand the challenges that bees are facing. Free seeds of Lemon Queen sunflower are mailed out at the end of April to all participating households. A great project to share with kids, friends, community gardeners, and other neigbours.

Check out:

Heirloom Tomatoes for our May 23 Sale

All our seedlings are now up! Tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, hot peppers, lettuce, kale, broccoli, brussel sprouts, herbs and some flowers...

We have a hard time holding back when it comes to trying new varieties of tomatoes - I should say, I have a hard time, and always love to plant new varieties as well as old ones (testing whether I have kept seeds viable yet one more year). We have a membership with Seeds of Diversity, and were planning to order more heritage seeds through the extensive directory, but by now we've already planted 21 varieties of tomatoes (which translates to more than 21 full flats when they are all transplanted up into 3 inch containers for the sale), so our greenhouse won't hold much more.

Varieties we have started:
Reds - Early Girl, Stupice, Patio, Glamour, Bonny Best, Yukon Red
Pinks - Polish Pink, Pink Ponderosa, Brandywine
Yellow - Yellow Plum, Yellow Cherry, Moonglow
Orange - Sungold Cherry, Mennonite Orange
Purples - Purple de Milpa, Cherokee Purple
Greens - Green Zebra, Tomatillo (technically not a tomato, but is used in salsas so included here)
Cherry - Sweetie, Peacevine, Isis Candy, Sub Arctic Cherry (also Sungold, Yellow Plum)

Around the Sound - celebrating local in Owen Sound

We took a short "holiday" this past weekend, to visit friends who we haven't seen enough of in the past months. They are living up in Owen Sound, about 3 hours north of here, and had recently purchased a home - this was a chance for a housewarming, to get a tour of the local town sites, time for them to connect with our new baby, and of course great conversations over equally great food.

Part of our tour included the local farmers market, featuring a good supply of local vendors with handmade goods as well as honey, maple syrup, eggs, baked goods, breads and even some end of winter organic produce. The second exciting stop was a newly opened local foods store - featuring all local items sourced largely from the Grey-Bruce County and a larger 100-mile radius. The store, aptly called "Around the Sound Local Foods Store" was well stocked with local meats (including the specialty smoked fish from nearby Georgian Bay), cheeses, produce, grains, handbaked breads, cakes, pickles and jams. It also featured some handmade crafts (knitted hats, soaps and candles), and a few books about eating locally. We duly dropped off a stack of the latest Edible Toronto Magazine (called Edible Toronto, but really featuring southern Ontario farmers and food stories), which Anne, the shop owner took happily to pass along to her customers. We were quite impressed with the shop, and couldn't leave without buying a few loaves of the wonderful wholesome bread (cranberry-sunflower, and multigrain sourdough, baked by the Rising Sun Bakery using local grains), and a jar of "fire kraut" (a unique and spicy sauerkraut made with chili peppers and spices)..mmmm

Next stop was a look at the huge open blue waters of the bay before heading home for lunch. Our friends are excellent cooks, also eating a mainly local diet which includes items from a winter share with their local CSA (community supported agriculture). Our breakfast that morning had already consisted of farm fresh eggs, with toast from Rising Sun Bakery, a fine homemade elderberry-wildgrape-rosehip-sumac jam made last fall. Now lunch was: roasted roots soup (cream of celeriac, parsnip and maple syrup) topped with savoury toasted tempeh bits, more bread from Rising Sun Bakery, and a raw salad of shredded beets, carrots, apples and celeriac from the CSA, plus toasted sunflower & pumpkin seeds, and homemade pickles, firekraut, and for dessert, last summer's homecanned peaches with a splash of amaretto.

Post-lunch we had time for a cozy cup of tea infront of the fire in the woodstove, and then a short hike up the nearby Bruce Trail on the rugged cedar-lined escarpment trails. We got home rested, well-fed, inspired, reconnected...

spOtlight Festival - Funding Received!

We just received word that we've gotten funding we applied for, toward an all-day event featuring traditional crafting techniques here at Little City Farm! Thank you to the Ontario Arts Council for supporting our idea, and allowing us to be a part of the province-wide "spOtlight Festival", a weekend open studio tour showcasing local artists and crafters. We are so pleased to be a part of this here in Kitchener!

Our series is called "Plants, Roots & Fibres: Natural Fibre Arts and Herbal Crafts". We will be focussing on using plants, natural fibres and recycled materials in all the workshops throughout the day. The FREE event is Sat, June 6 from 10 am-5 pm, with hour-long workshops running all day. More details coming but here is the basic schedule for the day. We encourage pre-registration as there will be some limited space for workshops held indoors (some workshops will be outside).

10 am - Natural Dyes
11 am - Spinning, Carding and Natural Fibres
12 noon - Break (we encourage people to bring a picnic lunch to eat here if they wish to stay)
1 pm - Wet Felting
2 pm - Herbal Oils and Salves
3 pm - Natural Cold-Process Soapmaking
4 pm - Papermaking

We'll have a variety of artists/crafters here to lead these workshops, with some hands-on components for participants. It's going to be a full and exciting day - come check it out!

Edible Toronto: Big Taste of Life at Little City Farm

Published! Thank you to Lauren Carter for an article that captured the essence of what we are hoping to achieve here at Little City Farm. This article, "A Big Taste of Life at Little City Farm", is featured in the Spring 2009 issue of Edible Toronto Magazine. Check it out at: (online version coming shortly)

The Creative Family - Amanda Blake Soule

I'm currently reading Amanda Blake Soule's book "The Creative Family", a beautiful resource book where Soule describes how she brings imagination and creativity into her family life and nurtures strong family connections. Well, I'm not so much reading as absorbing, conscientiously flipping through the artful photos, inspiring stories, and descriptive projects, picking up ideas and dreaming about all the possibilities for nurturing our own creative family life.

Soule goes through various stages in her book - gathering (how to not only gather great materials at low or no cost, but also how to prepare the creative mind); playing (encouraging imagination, supporting young artists in the family through events like regular "family drawing time", or carrying around "art on the go" bags full of art supplies); sharing handmade traditions (passing on traditional skills like sewing, knitting, felting and embroidering to kids); living creatively (exploring nature - for example, finding a special nature spot, building a fairy house, or keeping a garden journal); celebrating and connecting (handmade holidays, everyday rituals, creating with food, holding a hootenanny, organizing community art nights), etc! This book is chock full of super ideas, not only for keeping little ones busy, but encouraging the artist in all of us.

Here's a quote from the "everyday rituals" section of this book, that seemed to sum up in a simple way what much of our life should be about. Taken from the Tao Te Ching:

"In dwelling, live close to the ground. In thinking, keep it to the simple. In conflict, be fair and generous. In governing, don't try to control. In work, do what you enjoy. In family life, be completely present."

Amanda Blake Soule has her second book, The Handmade Home, coming out in August 2009. She also writes a regular blog, a place I go to often for ideas and inspiration, and to admire her artful photography. Go to: