Tuesday, March 30, 2010

New! Wedding Soaps

I just finished another custom soap order - wedding soap favours, which are "hotel" guest bar sized. These soaps will add a lovely natural touch and make a very nice gift to guests at this summer wedding being held on a nearby farm.

Wedding soaps from Homestead Herbals are available in any of the many varieties of soap I make - the minimum order is 50 guest sized bars of one variety - and they come with individual custom labels printed on recycled paper. Please check my etsy store for more details.

Eco-crafting natural egg dyes

Decided to invite a few mamas & kids from the neigbourhood over to do some egg decorating, have a spring picnic, and enjoy the backyard...the weather is looking like it will be gorgeous this week, plus, it is almost easter and why not try some alternatives to food colouring dyes for eggs. I experimented earlier to test out some natural dyes I had read about. For brown - strong dark coffee; for blue - elderberries from the freezer; for green - spirulina powder; for yellow - turmeric powder; for pink - chili powder. They are definitely not strong colours, and the eggs needed to "steep" for a good hour, but the results were not bad. You add 1 tsp white vinegar to the boiling water and dye agent, then add the hard boiled eggs. Simple. I tried to dye the lightest brown of our hen's eggs, but really white eggs would probably take up the colour better.

By the way, the spring "easter egg hunt" really does make sense - our hens have been so happy with the warm weather and their chance to free-range around the yard, that they have been laying their eggs in all kinds of surprising hidden locations. We certainly feel like we are hunting for them each day. One unusual place they seem to frequent and like, is a large bucket filled with wood shavings that we keep near our outdoor oven under a covered wood shed roof. There are at least 1-2 eggs in this pail each day! I don't know how the hens manage to sit on the rim of the pail and lay their eggs.

This weekend, there is an easter egg hunt being organized at a park in our neighbourhood - everyone is invited to bring coloured hard-boiled eggs to hide, which kids can trade in for chocolate eggs. I love that spontaneous and free community events like this, the May long weekend neighbourhood potluck-picnic, and Wednesday night kids soccer, all happen in this neighbourhood on a grassroots level.

***** Thanks for everyone's great ideas and suggestions on natural egg dying! For example, one person mentioned she uses raw eggs in the dye and simmers them for 20 minutes, then lets them steep another half hour off the heat. She finds them the perfect edible stage then. Colours suggested were thick grape juice for purple, and swirly colours used by wrapping eggs in onion skins with rubber bands.

Backyard greenhouse

We've had some greehouse questions, so I'm including an aerial view of a section of our backyard, taken two years ago during construction to our house (standing on our roof)! Our greenhouse is a very simple passive solar design, meaning facing due south and absorbing the sun's heat through the glass and using rainbarrels filled with water and painted black as a heat sink. We also have a permaculture "keyhole" shaped bed that is sunk into the ground and built as a raised bed style, which also holds heat and moisture for plants that are directly planted in it (this is where we plant our winter greens).

The greenhouse - we built this greenhouse ourselves in the second or third summer we were living on this property. It seemed a crucial outbuilding to have, as we wanted to grow greens in the winter as well as have a place to keep our seedlings in spring before they went out to the garden. Ideally, we would have liked to attach the greenhouse to our home, creating a warm sunny living space filled with edible greens, kitchen herbs, etc - and using the passive solar gain to heat our home. However, sadly, given the layout of our urban property, this design did not work for this house - attaching a large enough south facing greenhouse to our home would have meant it would have been directly on the sidewalk.

So the greenhouse is in our backyard, attached to an old "barn" with second floor loft that was pre-existing on the property when we moved here. The greenhouse is solid wall construction on the north side, and the southern side has fibreglass reinforced plexiglass windows (4x8 sheeting at $65/sheet - for the person who was wondering how much it cost. This was the cost about 7 years ago). We used the plexiglass rather than old storm windows made of glass (which are usually a great option, and often available for free) because we have a large black walnut tree towering over our greenhouse - it would have damaged the glass with the large walnuts raining down in the fall! As it is, the plexiglass has slowly accumulated a dark stain which we can only assume is from the dripping of the black walnut leaves. We'll have to do some serious cleaning this year, if not even buy new plexiglass soon.

Along the north wall we have our rainbarrels, a long planting table to work on the length of the wall, and shelving to hold our trays and plant pots, garden tools and watering cans. The interior wood for shelving to hold seedling trays is reclaimed from various construction projects including some shelves made from beautiful rustic 100 year-old wooden beams and flooring boards.

Some useful greenhouse/coldframe resources:
- old Harrowsmith & Mother Earth News books/magazines
- The Greenhouse Gardener's Companion, by Shane Smith
- Four Season Harvest, by Eliot Coleman
- The Winter Harvest Handbook, by Eliot Coleman
- Solar Gardening, by Leandre Poisson and Gretchen Vogel Poisson
- The Solar Greehouse Book, by James McCullugh (Rodale Press)

Seedlings - Heirloom Tomatoes & More - Our 8th Annual Seedling Sale May 22!

We've had a few questions about the seedlings we'll be offering at our annual seedling sale in May. I'll include a list here, as well as updates in future posts as we get more confirmations from the other two vendors who will be selling here.

This is our 8th annual seedling sale, as always on the Saturday of the May long weekend - so that's Sat, May 22 from 9 am -12 noon this year! We had a huge crowd the last year, so please plan to come early for best selection! We hope to set up a small area of our yard with tables and chairs, so people can relax and chat, eat baked goods and meet each other. There were so many wonderful people here for previous sales that it really felt like we needed to create a space for people to hang out after they purchase their plants - otherwise, people are crowding the driveway while discussing their garden plans with their friends and new acquaintances. It should be quite an event again this year and we are REALLY looking forward to it! I would say this is one of our main hightlights of the season! Such a hopeful time of year, and exciting to see that there are so many eager urban gardeners in K-W!

As for how we start our seedlings, yes, we do use grow lights. We have two large grow shelf units with three sets of shelves and lights each. This holds aproximately 12 seedling trays, though we usually try to squeeze in more than that by turning trays sideways at the peak of seeding time. Once our seeds are seeded into trays (starter peat), we keep them without lights on under the clear plastic lid covers until they germinate. As mentioned in an earlier post, as our house is quite cool we also have our grow shelves surrounded by plastic sheeting to help keep the seedlings warm. Once they germinate, we move them under the lights for about 12 hours/day (on a timer). When the seedlings are large enough to take a little cooler night temperatures, they get moved (and transplanted) into the greenhouse. This is usually in mid April that we start moving plants out there. More on the greenhouse in the next post.

Ideas of Seedlings for the May 22 sale:
- Heirloom tomatoes (many shapes, colours, sizes - indeterminate and determinate, etc)
- Basil varieties (purple, lemon, thai, sweet, tulsi/sacred)
- Herbs like thyme, mint, lavender, sage, oregano, savory, fennel, parsley
- Flowers like marigolds, calendula and other annuals
- Other veggies like zucchini, broccoli, eggplant, hot peppers, kale

Monday, March 22, 2010

Quick post replies - regarding laundry and chickens

Thanks to everyone who has been posting comments - while I read them all, I am sorry that I am not always able to take time to comment personally. Here are a few replies to answer some recent questions (hope this is helpful):

Q/ when you "freeze dry" your laundry on the line outside in winter, how do you soften the diapers that are stiff and cold when they come indoors?

A/ Yes, we don't have a clothes dryer and hang dry our laundry all year round. We do freeze dry our sheets and towels outdoors in winter, but have a large wooden drying rack that we use indoors to dry our cloth baby diapers. As we have a wood stove going in the next room, we find the diapers dry quickly within a few hours. This indoor rack actually also helps to humidify our house which can get quite dry in winter because of the wood stove. To brighten them up we do hang them out for a few hours, but this is not necessary.

Q/ I am moving to the kw area in the near future and am wondering about the chicken bylaws?

A/ There are a wide range of bylaws on this topic in our area. Kitchener and Waterloo are two separate cities, and as such have different sets of bylaws. The City of Waterloo recently started a pilot project regarding urban chicken keeping. A Waterloo Hen Association was formed, and people had 60 days to register their hens and be part of this study. The discussion will be reopened by city council in 2011. The City of Kitchener bylaws are a little ambiguous on this topic - one part of the bylaw seems to say no (the class of birds chickens belong to are not allowed), while another part seems to be affirmative (they are allowed for "animal husbandry" purposes). City of Cambridge, also part of the kw area, has a grandfathered clause for some of the older properties that had chickens in earlier years. City of Guelph, nearby, does allow hens. As with all bylaws, it's best to be respectful of your neighbours because if they don't approve then bylaw or not, they can still complain and end your hopes of having hens. We suggest checking in with your neighbours before getting hens, keeping the pen clean and tidy, not keeping too many (and no roosters), and giving away some eggs to help build positive hen relations.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Seed Starting Workshop

Get your seeds, trays and starter soil ready - after being inspired, again, by Angie Koch's seed starting workshop today, I think all workshop participants left feeling ready to start planting! It was a full house - we would have held the workshop outdoors but the weather wasn't cooperating. Thanks for everyone's willingness to cram into our little kitchen for this workshop! And thanks Angie, from Fertile Ground CSA.

A few seeding tips gleaned from Angie:
- use a hypothermia blanket (from Canadian Tire store, or a camping outfitter) to help insulate the seed rack and also help reflect heat and light back onto the tiny sprouting seeds. In a pinch, using aluminum foil can work too.
- do not over-water seeds/seedlings - moulds and fungal diseases will take hold in wet soil.
- the way a seedling is started will largely set the tone for the rest of it's growing cycle. e.g. if tomato seedlings are let to go too "leggy" (tall and spindly) they will likely be leggy out in the garden later. It's wise to be patient and not start tomatoes too early, having smaller bushy sturdy plants is better than tall long leggy ones.
- take some time to brush your seedlings gently with your hand each day as they get larger, or even fan them a little to help harden them off
- hardening off outside in gradual stages - using cloches, cold frames, or setting them out in mild sun (not full sun) on a warm day on a protected side of your house - give them a little time to adjust before they get planted out into the garden
- remember, though frost free date is the May 24 long weekend here in southern Ontario, we have had frost in the first week of June before (last year), so be patient with cold sensitive seedlings like basil and wait another week before setting them into the garden

There is a lot of information on the back of a seed package. Days to maturity, row spacing, planting depth, as well as other words like "open-pollinated", "untreated", or "heirloom". What does these mean? A few definitions Angie touched on, which will help to decipher the seed packets for you (these definitions are very abbreviated and more information is available in seed catalogues or on the internet):

Open-pollinated seeds - are seeds pollinated by insects, birds or wind. They will prodcue new generations of plants with potentially widely varying traits from the parent plants. If growing open-pollinated plants in your backyard garden the seeds you save from these plants will have crossed with other plants nearby, so they won't be true to the parent plant. However, open-pollination may help increase biodiversity.

Heirloom/heritage seeds - are cultivars that were commonly grown during earlier periods in human history, and are not used in large-scale commercial agriculture. Many of these heirlooms are open-pollinated varieties. Heirlooms tend to come with fantastic histories, names and stories, and often unique flavours, colour, texture, size/shape, etc. Growing heirloom plants, and saving seeds, has been increasing in popularity in the past decade in the hopes of preserving these old varieties which are not available for purchase in grocery stores.

Certified organic seeds - this simply means the plants that these seeds derived from have been grown following certified organic specifications.

Treated seeds - some seed packages will tell you that the seeds are "treated", meaning coated with fungicides, etc (not certified organic). Some seed packages will not tell you the seeds are treated, but a tell-tale sign is that seeds have a bright pink, blue or green coating on them. If you are concerned about using any chemicals in your backyard garden, then do not use treated seeds.

GMO seeds - Genetically modified organisms have had their genetic material altered using genetic engineering techniques. The idea is to combine DNA molecules from different sources, to produce new genes with specific traits. GMO seeds are highly contentious and a MUCH bigger topic - on one hand, companies like Monsanto claim they will help to reduce world hunger by vastly increasing crop yields. On the other hand, we don't yet know the long-term consequences of growing (and eating) GMO foods; GMO seeds from crops can't be saved by farmers, making them dependant on purchasing expensive seeds as well as other expensive inputs like Round-Up. Monsanto has specialized in production of GMO seeds for crops such as corn, soybeans, cotton and increasingly rice, and has been the primary multinational company targeted by environmental activists around the world.

Determinate plants - a more bushy kind of plant (e.g. tomato) that produces and ripens fruit all at one time. A good choice for someone with a balcony garden, or someone wanting to make a salsa or sauce with a bit batch of tomatoes that are ready all at once.

Indeterminate plants - a more sprawling kind of plant (e.g. tomato) that produces and ripens its fruit over the whole course of the growing season until killed by frost. A good choice for the backyard gardener who wants to savour tomatoes all season long, one lovely fruit at a time.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Sock Knitting Workshop

For those who love knitting, this past Saturday would have been bliss. A cold blustery day outdoors, and eight of us gathered around the dining room table with skeins of gorgeous yarn and handmade bamboo needles, sipping herbal tea and learning to knit socks! We had Nicole (from the local K-W Spinners and Weavers Guild) back to lead this session. She is an avid spinner (led a spinning workshop here in the fall) and knitter, not to mention beekeeper, gardener, etc. Knitting socks have become somewhat of a passion for her, and she brought an assortment of wonderful socks she has created, from simple stockinette stitch knee-highs, to intricate patterns like "cascade". She walked us through all the tricky details, like knitting heel flaps and reducing gussets, and got us started on our own pairs of socks. The workshop group decided to meet again in a month, to see where we've all gotten to with our socks, with Nicole generously offering to come back to help with any questions.

Tips for sock knitting - use tiny (set of 2.24 mm double-pointed needles), and fingerling weight yarn that preferably is not 100% wool or socks will felt in the wash!

Keep a small crochet hook on hand for picking up dropped stitches, and a tapestry needle for grafting and weaving in the ends.

Recommended Reading:
Teach Yourself Visually Sock Knitting, by Laura Chau
Knitting Vintage Socks, by Nancy Bush
New Pathways for Sock Knitters, by Cat Bordhi (more advanced)

Useful sites for knitters: (a great place for pattern and yarn ideas, and connecting with a community of knitters) (a free publication of patterns and articles that is published quarterly)
Recommended local store to purchase yarn and supplies - Shall We Knit in New Hamburg

REEP Energy Saving Renovation Workshops coming up March & April

REEP Energy Saving Renovation Workshops

Six Free Workshops - Do you want to increase the value of your home and cut your heating bills by up to 50%? Learn about cost savings, proper technique, and reducing your carbon footprint. Join Glenn Schmidt former home builder and REEP energy advisor (workshops 1-4) and Graham Whiting, green architect and REEP house designer (workshops 5-6).

Workshop Topics:

Mar. 17: Introduction to home energy efficiency, energy evaluations and electrical savings

Mar 24: Attic, main walls, windows and doors

Mar 31: Basement renovations and air leakage

Apr 7: Appropriate ventilation and furnace upgrades

Plus New Topics:

Apr 14: Insulating and preserving heritage homes

Apr 21: Solar, green technology for homes and green renovation materials

Dates: March 17, 24, 31 and April 7, 14, 21, 2010

Time: Wednesdays, 7:00pm to 9:00pm

Location: Grand River Stanley Park Community Library, 175 Indian Road, Kitchener

Bus Routes to the library: #1 Stanley Park, #17 Heritage Park

To register please call the host library at 519-896-1736

Learn about the Residential Energy Efficiency Project (REEP) at

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Wattle fences

A quick note on wattle fences - someone was asking if it really is as simple as it looks from a photo of our wattle fence in a recent post.

Yes, wattle building is a basic, old and simple building process that is very common around the world in various forms. We certainly had never done it before creating our little fence - and, although there can be many more elaborate and ornate designs than what we did, ours was done in about an hour and can be added to or embellished anytime. There is lots of room for creativity after the basic structure is done.

Wattle fences are made by weaving flexible saplings or cuttings (e.g. hazel, willow, red or yellow dogwood) in various patterns between upright posts. These uprights can be planted into the ground, creating a "living" fence that fills in with leaves throughout the season, or covered with "daub" (soil, clay, sand, even animal dung) to create a strong building material called "wattle-and-daub". Our wattle fence is made from local willow branches, but unfortunately won't be a living fence as the uprights were harvested the previous season and were no longer living when we built the fence. Wattle technique is a quick and affordable (free) way to build fencing, set up boundaries, add an element of natural art into your garden, create privacy, etc.

Here are some more links on wattle fences, including more photos:

Warm March breezes...

Spring is definitely in the air! We've been enjoying the balmy weather all weekend and it was difficult to head back inside (to the computer!). I noticed the greens in our cold frame tunnel have really perked up - parsley, chard, kale, various lettuces, arugula, Asian greens, chives - these seeds were planted last October, had just enough time to germinate and then sat as if in a refrigerator, all winter long. Now, with the longer hours of direct sun, they are thriving - the temperature inside the grow tunnel was near 30C yesterday at the peak of the day! These cold frames, whether grow tunnels like we have with hoops and plastic sheeting pulled over the entire raised beds, or just old-fashioned glass windows hinged onto a wooden box frame, are amazing aids in helping to extend our growing season. By April we should be eating fresh salad out of the grow tunnel!

We've also been doing quite a bit of tree pruning, including some fairly large overhanging branches which were casting increasingly more shade over the periphery of the garden each year. We'll have our work cut out for us, cleaning up the brush, and chopping and stacking firewood before we need to get into the garden soil! However, during the next warm spell, when we can't do much gardening yet but long to be outside, this is the perfect kind of work.

While working outdoors in the yard we have also let the hens out of their run, into the wider yard so they can truly roam around. They love this blissful warm sun, and frolic in the muddy patches scratching at seeds and the odd grub or tuft of green grass, and generally being their usual sociable selves. When we took a break to sit on our patio and soak in the sun, all five hens gathered around our feet preening their feathers and gently nipping at our pant legs to remind us they like to be petted, and looking up hopefully for a snack. We can't say enough good things about hens - they make great company, are child-friendly, provide hilarious entertainment, have quirky personalities, lay wonderfully tasty healthful eggs, keep insects at bay in the garden, help till the soil , eat kitchen compost wastes and turn it into rich manure, are loveable... In case anyone reading this is considering getting a few hens, now is the time. Usually around Easter time (early April) the day-old chicks are available from local hatcheries, and very affordable - about $1 per chick! Frey's, in St. Jacobs, is where we got our hens.

Just wanted to mention that all our herb seeds are now up - although lavender and rosemary are the slowest, and with a poor germination rate so far. These tend to be difficult seeds to start, at least in my experience. The basil is starting it's second set of leaves (or it's true leaves) so I am hopeful for a small batch of fresh pesto by early May! We have two indoor growing racks, each with three sets of shelves and full spectrum lights. We've wrapped plastic sheeting around the racks (or an old shower curtain could do in a pinch) to hold in the heat of the lights and give those seeds extra warmth as they get started. We also tend to water them with warm water, as our house is cool. In a warmer house this wouldn't be necessary.

We're hosting a seed starting workshop here next Saturday - facilitated again by Angie Koch, our friend who operates a new and very successful Fertile Ground CSA (community supported agriculture). More on the details of this workshop after it happens! We've written about her in other posts, and check out her site at:

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Zero Mile Diet Seed Kit from Salt Spring Seeds

Thanks to a friend who just sent me the info about this very cool idea - a "zero mile diet seed kit", put together by Salt Spring Seeds in BC. The idea is by using this seed kit gardeners or groups of gardeners can learn to become more self-reliant in food. Salt Spring Seeds states that with this kit of 13 packets of seeds, plus "combining them with locally grown vegetables, fruits and nuts, you could become close to 100% self-sufficient in food." They suggest, if you are in an urban environment and don't have a large plot of land, to get together with other neighbourhood gardeners and share these seeds around while turning front and back yard green spaces into gardens together.

For $46, you can get the 13 seed packets contained in this kit, and reap a huge harvest! The seeds included are: Red Fife Wheat, Purple Barley, Hulless Oats, Wren's Abruzzi Rye, Golden Flax, Quinoa, Amaranth, Heritage Bean Mix, Carlin Soup Pea, Winnifred's Garbanzo, Russian Kale, 20 Lettuce Blend, Ardwyna Paste Tomato.