Thursday, August 29, 2013

lessons from the garden

Our community garden plots have not done that well this year. It may be that last year's success was all down to beginner's luck. But there have been compounding factors. The spring was cold and late. By the time planting conditions arrive, I had just started working full-time and had barely any time to do any work there. Then it rained and rained and rained, and I didn't want to do any work there. The weeds took over. I managed to fight them back, and we've harvested a few zucchinis and some potatoes that just showed up, missed in last year's harvest I guess.

I've learned some new things. The seeds I planted in early April did germinate, but that's pretty much it. I thought it was better not to till the soil, but apparently that's only if you have adequate organic matter. The poor beets and chard are so stunted, even four months later, I'll just put them back into the earth. So that's a good lesson: keep the soil from compacting. 

For the second year in a row, the peas died as soon as they started producing a few pods. I don't know why, but a fellow gardener suggested it might be a lack of the bacteria in the soil that helps the plant fix nitrogen. I remember in an episode of Gourmet Farmer, they worked with a soil biologist who cultivates microorganisms to boost food production. They grew two side-by-side patches of the same vegetables: one with specific amendments of compost, nutrients and microorganisms and one just with compost. At the end of the season they did a taste test, and not only did the first patch produce more and better looking vegetables, but the vegetables all had much better flavour from that patch. I wonder if there's someone in my area who cultures microorganisms for hire. At the very least, I plan to prep my beds properly this fall: more compost, hopefully from my friend with the backyard chickens, plus a cover crop to turn in next spring. I haven't done a lot of research but I'm thinking buckwheat or maybe some kind of vetch. 

This year, I've been trying my hand at squash instead of potatoes. I planted zucchinis, delicata squash and a pie pumpkin. The pumpkin is rampant, overtaking its neighbouring zucchini and already setting 7 fruit with more female flowers on the way. The zucchinis are not as prolific as I was expecting, but they're producing. And the poor delicata appears to be living up to its name. It was nearly destroyed by squash bugs before I discovered what they were and how to fight them: hand-to-exoskeleton mortal combat. I use duct tape wound sticky side out around my hand to catch them, because they're wiley and hide quickly when they see you coming. It's trying to make a comeback, so we'll see what happens. It had set fruit, and I was very excited, but those parts have all died, so I may not get any. I've caught a bunch of squash bugs on the pumpkin too, but my watching and killing appears to be keeping them at bay so far. The zucchini seem utterly unaffected, touch wood. 

I also have a big patch of celeriac. Convinced there was no way I'd find anyone selling celeriac seedlings, I tried starting my own from seed. Celeriac needs a long, frost-free season to mature, so there is no direct seed option here in Ontario. A number of the seeds I planted germinated but they've done very poorly. They were only really big enough for transplanting in July. Luckily, the Guelph Urban Organic Farm was selling celeriac seedlings, so I bought a bunch and those ones are thriving, with large bulges already swelling from the ground. I couldn't bring myself to actually kill the celeriac I started, but I highly doubt they will produce any food. They are still struggling and small. Next time, I need to start them a month earlier, and feed them lots of nutrients. I'm pretty sure the planting medium I started them in just didn't cut it.

* * *
I started this post several days ago, but didn't know how to wrap it up. Tonight when I went to the garden, I discovered my pumpkin, with all its five glorious, perfect pumpkins (one died and one got eaten since I wrote about it above), is all but dead. It's had powdery mildew and for days I've been meaning to spray it with milk and water a la Dr. Google, but you're supposed to do it during the day, and I can't get out there easily during the day. And, to be honest, I didn't think it was THAT urgent of a situation. The plant does look a lot like the delicata that was destroyed by squash bugs, and I have killed a bunch of the suckers on the pumpkin, but I didn't see them overrunning the plant the way I did the other squash. And I killed bugs every other night for a week.

Anyways, tomorrow I'll try to detach myself from the ever-voracious nursing toddler so I can spray the plant in the morning and get into work on time for my 9:30 meetings with senior executives. I am very, very bummed out about the state of my pumpkin plan. I was so looking forward to all the pumpkins.

I guess this too is an important lesson: never count your pumpkins before they ripen. Also, don't try to grow them vertically or plant them too close to each other or other squashes.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

homeschooling update

A number of people (in fact, I think, most people we've discussed the recent changes in our life with) have expressed surprise that Husband is just continuing the homeschooling now that I'm working full-time. I generally express surprise in return. We made the decision together. And it doesn't make sense to send a kid to school because another parent starts bringing home the pastured bacon. Or at least not to us. But I do understand that some couples are not on the same page around homeschooling. For all our problems, and there have been many (one day I will blog about how we narrowly avoided separating late this past winter), but there are two things that could have been a huge source of marital strife and haven't been for us: one thing that is unbloggable and homeschooling.

That said, we do deserve a bit of credit. I don't think every couple or maybe even most couples could change up their roles as successfully as we appear to have. He approached the transition like training for a new job, and I approached it as sharing what worked for me but with space for him to find his own way.

My sister recently asked us what our plans for the fall are, vis a vis Eldest and school. The question caught me by surprise, as our decision to homeschool is not a year to year thing, which makes the answer pretty clear: more of the same. I think Eldest is thriving. There have been a few areas where I thought the unschooling approach might break down, but it hasn't. (I've seen rumblings on the Internet that some people are quite dogmatic about what constitutes unschooling, but I haven't encountered them myself. And besides, I'm not much of a one for labels. I understand unschooling to be based on a trust in children's innate capacity and drive to learn and because of that fundamental trust, we follow our family's interests and give the kids space to pursue their own interests on their own timeline, rather than following an arbitrary curriculum or timeline).

One are where I thought approach might break down was swimming lessons. I believe swimming is an important life skill and it's one of the few things that I think my kids must learn (cooking and reading are two others), although I'm agnostic on the timelines for the learning. At the beginning of last summer, Eldest was afraid to even put his face in the water. He loved water in baths, but deeper water was very scary for him. Last summer, we discovered a wonderful learning opportunity: private lessons with a young woman in her family's backyard pool. No other kids in the water, and just one teacher to get to know over the summer. 

It took a while for him to trust the instructor, after a bad experience with private lessons at a public pool (the teacher told him she would catch him and then didn't - he was furious and so were we). But once he did, he made amazing progress facing his fears under her guidance. She just had a knack for when to push and when to withdraw and let him do something fun. This year, it's her sister who's teaching and she seems to have the same knack. He's now swimming across the whole length of the pool, treading water, and jumping off the diving board, all without a life jacket. What I love especially is that within the lesson he seeks out his challenges, asking if he can swim farther or tread water for longer or practice a particular stroke he enjoys. It's just wonderful to see his newfound confidence. It's worth noting that he made a major leap after our weekend at the cottage, when he spent an hour or two in the deep water (wearing his life jacket) playing with all the other kids with no intervention from grown-ups. 

The other area where I thought the unschooling approach might break down was with transitioning out of training wheels on his bike. For ages he was scared and refused and we didn't push him. I was of two minds: that he didn't really NEED to ride a bike without training wheels and that maybe we should just force him (Note to self: any time I've tried to force something on Eldest it has been not only unsuccessful but generally traumatic for everyone involved). Then, at the beginning of the summer, we realized that the training wheels had become bent and almost never touched the ground anyways. So Husband adjusted them even higher and taught Eldest how to put his foot out for stopping and starting. After a few days of that, or maybe a week, Eldest asked to have the training wheels removed and he's been biking like a fiend ever since. 

In other homeschooling news, Eldest is pretty much reading. Mostly he taught himself from road signs and grocery store signs and from having us read to him. Then one day he read a board book to Youngest, and now he's reading some of his own books. His vision remains a bit of an issue, I think, because he mostly reads larger print words and refuses to put his glasses on for smaller print. And he still likes the experience of being read to, which I think is great. 

I can't remember if I've already said this here, but I think there are disadvantages to reading independently at an early age. I was reading novels by age 5, and I don't really have any memories of my parents reading to me. And we never developed the practice of discussing what I was reading and thinking critically about it, so I got kind of messed up by reading all of VC Andrews' books when I was 11. And finally, I use words as my primary method of gathering information. If there are words, I pretty much ignore any other information. Whereas I see Eldest takes in all the other information first, and then the words add to it. 

I think one of the biggest benefits of homeschooling for Eldest has been that he can watch me try to learn my own things and make mistakes and learn from them. And he watches Husband too. Eldest has a bit of a perfectionist bent that was making him very private about his learning and making mistakes. But I think he's getting a lot more comfortable with exposing his learning and mistakes, and that's such an asset in life, I think.

Monday, August 26, 2013

apple season

I think this might be a good year for apples. Inspired by Not Far from the Tree, I plan to drop off a few notes like this tomorrow. note-8328

Sunday, August 25, 2013

life and stuff

So we're a few months into the new regime, of me working full-time, a couple of kilometers from home. I'm afraid to say it, but I think we all agree that life is pretty good. Of course I'm having to pick and choose how I spend my time outside work, and the kids miss spending as much time with me as they used to. But there are some very good things about life at the moment.

I swear my husband is happier. He's slower to commit to that declaration, fearing that it's just the novelty of change. But he has more energy, he laughs more easily and he snaps less at the kids. He really loves being outside for most of the day, and they've really been enjoying the summer. He and Eldest have gotten up to some really cool things. They built an insect hotel (it just needs some roofing), a rustic sailboat, and a cardboard airplane (this may still be in the works, but I think they decided it just wouldn't fly. They've bought balsa gliders and other storebought flying things. One got caught in the wind, did a 180 and landed high in some trees, irretrievable. My parents brought an awesome hawk kite home from China a couple of years ago, and we've been too afraid to fly it. But after seeing some kite flyers a few weeks ago, they were inspired to go kite flying, and the hawk kite was amazing. They've discovered the National Film Board of Canada's website and have watched a whole bunch of animations by Norman McLaren, among other nature and geography documentaries.

They all come to visit me at lunch, and I nurse Youngest and get to connect with what they've done and what they're planning for the rest of the day. I ride my bike or walk most days, or they give me a ride if I'm feeling cruddy or if the weather is cruddy. Life is much easier with Husband at home and Eldest homeschooling than when we were both working, Husband out of town, and Eldest was in daycare. In the morning, it's only me who has to get out the door at a certain time. I think this is pretty dreamy.

Husband does a lot more cooking, and we've discovered he does amazing things with meat. In late May, we got a quarter of a grassfed beef. We lost some of it in a freezer malfunction, but still have a lot left, and he's been learning to cook the new cuts with aplomb. He makes the gluten-free muffins and granola I used to make, so Youngest and I can have snacks. He hasn't yet taken over the broth-making, although we haven't done much over the summer because I haven't wanted to heat up the house. I wonder if he will in the cooler weather.

All in all, life feels pretty sweet for the most part. Of course, I could do without some of the office politics stuff, but I work with some wonderful people who make me feel like a good person, and I enjoy the thinking and writing aspect of the job. I just wish it didn't take up so much time.

I've been harbouring a farm fantasy ever since I read Radical Homemakers and realized that there could be a different way to have a farm than the way my parents did. Although I have moments where I think, maybe we could just keep things as they are, the fantasy isn't really abating. Now that Husband is experiencing the joy of life at home without a lot of external schedules (some days anyways), he's seeing the value of my vision, and I think he's finally on board with the farm fantasy. This is a very good thing.

Obviously, with us having no real skills (other than my years of horse shit-shovelling experience), it's at least a year or two out. And in the meantime, the community garden experience offers good learning. We're also going to get chickens this fall, to see how we like having them. If/when we get a farm, I think I'd like to start with chickens, provided we enjoy working with them.

I keep reading and watching memoirs and shows about urban folks moving to the country to grow their own food, and there's one major gap in their stories. Nobody talks about the money, about how you finance this dream without debt, especially when you have children you need to feed, shelter and clothe and who can't earn their keep just yet. In our area, you can't even get an acre with a house for much less than half a million dollars. So I'm pretty sure the farm dream requires moving some distance away.

I remember when we were debating whether to try homeschooling with Eldest, we noticed that it's very hard to make a decision to try something that could be better or worse, when your current situation is ok. It's much easier to try something new when everything sucks. You don't have anything to lose. But if things are ok, even nice, you stand to lose a lot. Especially if it involves moving across the province to a place where you don't know anyone.

Last fall I went to a parenting workshop with Ingrid Bauer. And she said, "This is sweet. And yet I want to reach for something sweeter." That's where I'm at, I think.

As sweet as life is at the moment, I don't want to sit at a desk for eight hours a day. I think three or maybe four hours, maybe every other day, would be perfect. I'm not the kind of person who goes outside for the sake of going outside in the winter. But if I have animals to feed, I'll enjoy it when I have to. I enjoy the forced observation of the garden and feeling my body move. I want more of all that.  I'm hoping to blog more about this process of learning and transformation, but that just seems to get squeezed out. If I'm honest, it probably doesn't help that this space doesn't answer back.