Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Soap nuts soap?

I was given a bag of soap nuts a few months back and because I had a good stash of laundry soap on hand, I didn't try them right away.  I've been cleaning out cupboards and closets like crazy over the past few weeks and found these little nuggets languishing at the back of the laundry shelf.  Time to use them!  

I had heard of making liquid soap with soap nuts and since I was running low on that, I thought I'd give it a try.  After a bit of internet surfing, I plopped 1 cup of soap nuts into a small pot with water and simmered them until the colour had leached from the soap nuts.  I was surprised at the saponin - there was quite a lot of bubbles with some agitation!  The smell was "interesting" - not my favourite smell in the world (but not the worst, either).  It sort of reminded me of apples, but wasn't nearly as nice (which is why I added essential oil to the mix).

The verdict?  Definitely not for hand or dish soap, but great for laundry!  The soap nut liquid was surprisingly very drying to my skin, so that meant it was not going to work for hand soap or dish soap.  In the end, I used it all for laundry, but that seemed a bit of waste as I needn't have boiled it all to get laundry soap when I could have simply put the soap nuts into the washer as is!  Oh well - all in the name of experimentation and learning, right?

Have you used soap nuts?  If so, in what way did you use them?  

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Enthusiasm and Optimism

There's nothing quite like pegging the first load of laundry on the line for the season.  It's a meditative activity, and one that I've missed.  Feeling a warm breeze blow through my hair while the sun shines on my back is heavenly after a winter of bitter cold.

We're currently enduring typical Spring weather in Alberta - snow.  It won't last long, so I'm directing my energy into the greenhouse in preparation for what surely will soon follow -garden planting time! 

Our worm farm is thriving and I'm mighty thrilled about that.  Worms of all sizes can be seen plus plenty of eggs.  I take that to mean that conditions are just right for breeding.   We collect the liquid that drains out of the bottom which is like black gold - looks a bit ick, but I assure you, it's valuable stuff!    I've been diluting it and watering the greenhouse with the solution.   Let's see how the seedlings respond.  Step inside the greenhouse...

I've been busy in here (which I must say is a LOVELY place to spend time on a blustery Spring day).  It's crude and utilitarian, but it works!  The warmth and light are a major tonic for this winter weary soul.  

Can you see the cold frames on the right side?  I seeded those a month ago and they are limping along...  Because our greenhouse is uninsulated and unheated, it's really functioning more like a very large cold frame rather than a greenhouse.  To give me a further leg up - I've been experimenting with positioning the cold frames IN the greenhouse - essentially a cold frame within a cold frame.  Results are mixed.  Because we still received quite a bit of snow after I seeded the frames, I had trouble keeping the snow off the roof to allow enough light for germination and growth.  The roof pitch just is too shallow to shed all the snow.  Temperatures were suitable to germinate cold weather crops (winter lettuce, kale, radish, etc), just that low light level held me back, I think.

We use sawhorses with old doors and pieces of 3/4" plywood to rig up makeshift seeding tables.  It's not pretty, but it gets the job done.  I like the temporary nature of it, though - we can set up and take down in minutes.   This year, we won't be growing tomatoes in here again - there's a new set up coming for that (stay tuned!).  Instead, I've got peppers, eggplant and melons reserved to grow in the greenhouse beds.

As of today, I now have every surface in here covered with pots (must be close to 500 now).  I seeded a massive selection of heirloom veg, herbs and flowers all with a nod to nurturing our bodies (and the bees that are to come).  I'm busting with the enthusiasm and optimism that only seeding time can bring!  Even though we're a month away from planting in the gardens, the next 4 weeks will see a steady increase of green growth in the greenhouse...  my favourite place to be just now :)

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Turning in Fall/Winter Cover Crops

In the Fall, I seeded rye in this newly formed bed at the front of the house.  We had finally finished the construction of the front verandah (minus the railing which is now done) and could at long last, create growing space out front.  The area was compacted (from walking on it during the long construction process) and weedy (from neglect and also the disturbance of construction).  Enter:  sheet mulching and cover cropping!

I had saved cardboard and newspapers for months so had all we needed to thickly cover the compacted weedy soil.  Onto that, we dumped many wheelbarrow loads of partially composted chicken coop bedding (wood shavings and manure).  Onto that, we raked in fall rye and kept it watered.     

Before long, we had rye growing!  The neighbours thought we were crazy because it looked like we seeded grass into our new garden, LOL. 

Because the rye grew quickly, it smothered the ground before any weeds could push up through all the cardboard and mulch (which is exactly what I was aiming for).  

Soon, the snow fell and it all was blanketed in white for 6 months.  Fast forward to April and Spring's arrival.  The snow is nearly all gone (you can still see the remnants of the large snow pile in the background) and the ground is thawing out.    Time to turn the rye under!

A few test digs netted beautiful results.  The soil is lovely and soft and the cardboard/newspaper is almost all decomposed.  The clumps of rye came up easily (which was a great relief to me).  I had visions of toiling and sweating for days to turn this over.  I REALLY wanted to avoid using the tractor to till it in as the weight of the tractor would surely compact the soil again plus the tilling was bound to destroy the soil structure that I have been working so hard to repair.   Greatly encouraged by those few test digs, I kept going...

Here's a look at the underside of the rye.  You can see the fine network of roots and how they haves totally enmeshed into the wood shaving/manure mulch and into the soil below.  After shaking off the soil, here's a look at the mulch/roots.

It was amazing to me to see the effect of microclimate in this small patch of earth.  Right up against the verandah skirting, the soil was completely thawed (warm, in fact) and soft up to the full depth of the garden fork (nearly 12").  It was fast work to turn the rye over in the entire back half of the bed but as soon as I reached the halfway mark (working toward the front), I had to stop digging.  The soil there was still frozen!  This wonderfully warm microclimate has me scheming of what to plant there...  I'm guessing grapes would be a good choice with the protection from prevailing winds and the added benefit of reflective heat.  We've got the railing there now to support the vines and as an added bonus, the shade in summer (from the grape vines) would certainly ease the intense heat reflecting into the house off the cedar deck boards. I can totally "dig" harnessing all that solar energy in the forum of grapes!  Seems like a good example of stacking functions, permaculture style :)

Thursday, 3 April 2014

On Honey and Diversity

My husband emailed me this picture and I'm sorry I have no source for it.

We are receiving our bees at the end of May (from Sweet Acres Apiaries) which means that I've got to get a wiggle on when it comes to preparing for seeding good forage for them.  There's no guarantee that we'll be able to harvest any honey from our hives, as first priority will be ensuring that the bees have enough honey (and pollen stores) to get them through next winter.  If there is a surplus, we'll harvest with glee, but not at the expense of the bees.   I'm firmly in the "Let Bees Eat Their Own Honey All Winter" camp, not in the "Give Bees Sugar Water To Get Through Winter So I Can Harvest All The Honey" camp.  Supplementary feeding in times of dearth is another matter, but when it comes to honey harvesting, BEES ALWAYS COME FIRST.

Good local honey from unmedicated hives is an expensive product (as it should be!).  We use quite a bit of it and are looking forward to having our own honey (in whatever quantity the bees can comfortably provide).

To hopefully stack the odds in our favour, we're converting large swaths of our grass over to bee forage meadows.   We are surrounded by (monoculture) agriculture but dotted throughout the are a few "islands" of natural forage.   I'm aiming to create a lush and diverse forage area right on our land which will not only benefit our bees, but also, lots of other pollinators.

Here's an interesting chart showing North American nectar sources for honeybees.  Not all of those species will grow in our region, but it gives me a good guideline as to what to plant so that we have nectar available all season long.   Like any natural ecosystem, diversity is key to have a steady and varied supply of food for our bees.   In urban areas, there tends to be more varied bee forage, but out here in Ag country, not so much.  We are fortunate to have a 200 meter willow windbreak which provides reliable early forage, but there's much that I can do to create a full season of bee food after the willows' contributions.  Specifically, I'd like to plant more trees (a Linden would be nice) to round out the diverse perennial plant forage choices.

I've been thinking about and reading up on to the topic of diversity this winter and I'm reasonably confident that the health of every living thing can be boosted simply by consuming a more diverse diet.  We have experienced that health boost first hand this past winter (as a family).  My goal was to add serious diversity to our diet in the forum of eating a much BROADER spectrum of species.  The reward was our healthiest winter on record in spite of lots of nasty flu and cold bugs making their rounds in our community.  In nearly 23 years of parenting, this was truly a remarkable discovery - experiencing FIRST hand how our immune systems were aided through the simple quest for diversity.   Generally speaking, most people eat a very limited diet (from a species perspective) as a lot of our food comes from only a few crops.  Additionally, we tend to be creatures of habit, relying on favourite foods to make up the bulk of our diet.   Why would honeybees be any different from us?  Wouldn't they be healthier with a diverse offering of food (just like we found)?    I'm betting yes, but we'll see how that theory pans out this year.  I'll keep you posted on what we learn (oh boy, there's much humble learning to come....).

For information on natural beekeeping, check out Bush Farms.  It's a great site!

FYI, I took my beekeeping course through Apiaries and Bees For Communities and can't speak highly enough about Eliese Watson (my instructor).  She's a wonderful woman doing GREAT work on behalf of honeybees.