Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Downside of Renting

We've had it pretty lucky at our current rental apt. It had the beginnings of a garden when we moved in in 2008 and I've had the landlords permission to do pretty much anything to improve it. I've also managed to take over space on the flat roof without incident. So it was particularly heart wrenching to find out recently that our landlord is selling and with that comes a lot of changes and adjustments. Not all of them are terrible, in fact at first I was delighted because the main floor tenants moved out and the apartment was to remain empty. Also the basement tenant lives on his boat all summer, which meant the entire backyard and garden are mine to do as I please! But then the reason why this was all happening became apparent- the building is to be sold and both of the empty apartments need a lot of work before that happens. To my dismay, that involved a dumpster being set down in the yard and the only way that could happen was to drive it through my raised beds.

I've had about a month to come to terms with all of the above. At first I tried to convince the landlord to place the bin elsewhere but that didn't work out. I protested that I would lose a lot of my time and money invested and he was sympathetic but it had to be done. So I've been in a state of denial/sadness/frustration for the past few weeks before finally resigning myself to make the best of it.

In once sense I'm glad it happened this year. Whether because of the prolonged winter or just a genereal apathy, I never started any seedlings indoors at all this year so there's nothing languishing in pots waiting to be planted. I found out about the dumpster just before I was planning on direct seeding my peas and beans so none of those are in. And not a single aparagus crown survived this winter! So the only potential casualties are the garlic planted last fall and now up about a foot, and the rhubarb which I moved to sunnier location just last year. And of course the raised beds themselves.

Fortunately when I built the beds I did it with screws not nails, so last Monday I admitted defeat and took the larger of the two beds apart. I dug out as much of the soil around the edges as I could and shoveled it into bins. I took the composter apart and shoveled all the unprocessed compost into bins as well. I left three sides of the smaller raised bed intact surrounding the garlic in hopes that the truck could manouever around it. I dug up the poor rhubarb and some wild garlic and left them in pots to be returned once the dumpster is gone.
The dumpster arrived the next day and it was massive! Thankfully the driver was sympathetic and did his best to work around the obstacles I left. I think he might have been a little afraid of the crazy woman standing over her garlic like they were children! In the end the remaining wood bed had to be removed as well but bless the truck driver, the garlic survived being driven over twice!

So all is not lost as I first feared. The bin was only here for just three days and after it left all of the garlic was still standing. The frames need to be rebuilt and the soil is badly compacted in places but I will reclaim the entire space. I'm looking at it as an opportunity to correct a few things like moving the composter and digging the beds in better. My veggies will go in slightly later than planned but I will be adding some new soil thanks to the landlord who has offered to compensate me for the trouble.

This still leaves the sale of the building hanging over our heads but that's an issue that we'll have to deal with when it happens. And if this is to be our last summer here I want to have a garden to remember!

Friday, March 14, 2014

40 bags in 40 days- Decluttering for Lent!

Have you heard of this challenge? 40 bags in 40 days is a project where you tackle a different area of your home every day during Lent (Sundays are a day off) and get rid of stuff you don't use. The idea is to fill a bag of unnecessary stuff everyday but as pointed out in the details, the size or type of container isn't the focus, it's more of an incentive to deal with the unneeded stuff we acquire one bit at a time. That's good because there are no garbage bags in my house since we stopped buying them a few years ago but I'm sure I have enough reusable bags to take care of 40 days worth. Maybe sorting out those bags is the first place I should start!

Not being particularly religious, I don't normally participate in any type of Lenten ritual but this is one I can get behind. Since Lent started over a week ago I'll be a bit late but I had actually been working on this on my own recently so the timing is perfect. The website has tips on areas to focus on (like email accounts and pinterest boards if you run out of stuff in the house) and suggestions to keep you motivated. There are even some forms you can print out to list the areas you'd like to attack, keep track of what you've finished and how many bags you've managed to get rid of. I don't think I'll need that but I'll try to post updates here to keep myself honest.

I have a few areas that really need work- our landlord recently decided to paint the hall for us and it was a bit of a shock to realize how much had accumulated in that space when we had to move it all out. It's become a pile of chaos in the livingroom and I've been procrastinating in dealing with it because there's a lot to sort out and I want to get rid of a lot instead of putting it all back. So that is definitely on the list.

Today however I am focused on  the top of the refrigerator and the spice rack. I keep a lot of dried herbs and spices and have used many different containers over the years, most of which I hang onto. There's a particular rack of decorative jars on top of the fridge that have out lived their usefulness and I need to part with it. A few of the jars are missing and none of them sealed that well to begin with. Not to mention that the top of the fridge is less than ideal conditions for herb preservation. So all of the tired herbs are headed for the green bin, and the remaining spices are being re-jarred in more practical containers that will fit in the proper spice shelf which also got reorganized. The old jars and rack will be cleaned up and donated to a thrift shop.

Early spring is a good time to deal with all of this clutter, before the nice weather arrives and I won't want to be indoors! I think the biggest challenge for me won't be filling 40 bags, it will be finding places and time to find new homes for the bags once they are full!

My properly organized spice rack!

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Not So Guilty Pleasures

I fell off the local food wagon today. I went to the nearby grocery chain to stock up on pantry staples and there were fresh green things from far away warm places, calling my name and luring me with their crisp leaves and stems full of chlorophyll. Normally I can walk by the displays of  non seasonal fruit and and veg without too much yearning but this winter has killed me. So cold for so long, endless days of snow and ice; even the extra hours of daylight aren't doing much except making me more restless. Suddenly it felt like the only thing that would make me feel better was the taste of dandelion greens from Texas, oriental eggplants grown in California and asparagus from Mexico. I should feel guilty but really, all I feel is hungry!

Last week I was fortunate enough to escape winter briefly as I attended a music conference in Kansas City MO. While not summer weather by any stretch, it was miles better than here, with temps reaching 15 C on one of the days I was there and the rest of the week it was well above freezing. It was lovely to be outside wearing a light jacket or sweater, no gloves or boots or hats to be seen. I even managed a brief but chilly swim in the heated outdoor pool! But I think it also tricked my body into thinking it was spring because I cannot be content to be warm and cozy any longer. I cannot face any more hearty soups or stews. I swear I will burst into tears if I have to look at another carrot or roasted root vegetable! When I found myself scowling at the sprout jar this morning, I knew it was over.

The body knows what it needs and mine was screaming for bitter greens which the frozen tundra outside my door will not be able to provide for a long while yet. It's still 20 long days until spring officially begins and I'm not holding my breath that the weather's going to cooperate by then either. Sometime in the next week or so I will start some seedlings for this year's garden and maybe some greens for quick eating but until then I will be feeding my cravings with imports. I needed dandelion greens stat and my favourite recipe is for dandelion greens and goat cheese pasta .

1 bunch dandelion greens washed well and chopped
2 strips of bacon cut in small pieces
1 onion, minced
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
2-3 tbsp goat cheese
1 lemon- for zest and 1 tbsp lemon juice
salt and pepper to taste
3 cups cooked pasta- I like linguine or fettuccine but any kind works
Parmesan cheese- optional

Cook and drain pasta as directed, reserving 1/2 cup of pasta water.

Sauté bacon and onions until onions are soft, add garlic and dandelion greens and stir until greens are wilted. Use a zester or small grater to add about a tsp of lemon zest or to taste- I like mine lemony! Add a tsp of fresh lemon juice and goat cheese and stir until greens are well coated; add pasta water a little at a time until it makes a  creamy sauce. Toss with pasta and serve with parmesan cheese.

On the theme of eating local, FarmGal is running her March Pantry Challenge again this year but as much as I'd love to join her, I'm afraid we'd starve this year. Until my doomed trip to the grocery store, our pantry was empty except for a few jars of pickles, and  I could see all the way to the back of the freezer but for a few containers of currants and one sandwich bag each of frozen beans and peppers. I don't know if we consumed more or I preserved less but it's an awfully good thing we don't have to live off of stored food this winter. I might have to have closer look at how much I put down this year.

I wrote this post last week and never got it posted- the cold I brought back from KC turned nasty and I ended up with pneumonia. Some good healthy food (and some expensive antibiotics, boo) have helped me bounce back quickly and I'm so glad I listened to my cravings!

Here's a nice meme I found floating round the internet that sums up my feelings exactly- she even looks like me!

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Great Backyard Bird Count!

Looking for something to help break out of out of the long winter slump this weekend? Trying to avoid the usual Valentine's Day commercialism? Why not participate in a worldwide event which actually helps the planet?

This weekend is the Great Backyard Bird Count! The Great Backyard Bird Count is a revolutionary research project that encourages volunteers to participate by counting the number and species of birds in their own backyards. The event takes place from Feb 14- 17 worldwide and only requires a minimum of 15 minutes. You can read how to get started and register to log in your findings here

Anyone in the world who can donate as little as 15 minutes can join the bird count and fill out a tally sheet to help form a real-time, global snapshot of the health and size of bird populations in their area.
The one rule is that you have to do it over one of those four days over the weekend, and you have to spend at least 15 minutes counting birds. It could be on your balcony, it could be in your backyard or you could go down to the local duck pond or you could go to Algonquin park!*

In 2013, Great Backyard Bird Count participants in 111 countries counted 33,464,616 birds on 137,998 checklists, documenting 4,258 species—more than one-third of the world’s bird species! The information collected from this project among others is used to obtain a big picture glimpse of bird populations and over the long term the information can be used to help scientists discover what effect things like climate change, industrial growth and pesticides are having on birds worldwide.

Here in Toronto it's been so cold for most of the winter that I haven't seen many birds at all, although two weeks ago a red tailed hawk landed in the tree not 10 feet from the deck!  I've been putting out food periodically, which usually attracts more squirrels than birds but I try. Tomorrow looks like it will be the warmest day in a while so the most likely for bird activity. To encourage more feathered visitors I'm making some feeding stations and one my favourite methods is by making homemade suet blocks. I make these with ingredients I have on hand and packaged bird seed.

Suet is a bit of a misnomer in this case because I have already rendered the suet to make tallow which I keep in jars in the fridge. You could use any edible fat that solidifies at refrigerator temperatures.

For a small batch I melt about a 1/2 cup in a small sauce pan and add 1/2 cup peanut butter.

When it reaches a liquid consistency (careful not to overheat!), I add about 1/2 cup of rolled oats, as well a small amounts (1- 2 tbsp) of seeds (flax, sesame, sprouting seeds),chopped nuts and dried fruit. You could use any small grain or cornmeal in place of the oats.

Stir well and remove from heat- you don't want to cook the additions, just make sure they are well covered in the melted fats. When the mixture has cooled a little I add birdseed until the consistency of the mixture is almost solid but still well covered in fats.

Spoon the mixture into a mold- I like to use muffin tins to make several small pucks but you could do one big block if you have a method to hang it. Place in a cold place to solidify.

Once the pucks are solid you will want to suspend them in something that holds the pucks together but still allows birds (and squirrels) to nibble at them. I use empty mesh onion bags to hang them in the nearby tree. The squirrels will try to run away with the entire bag given the chance so I have been experimenting with methods that keep the mesh firmly attached to the branch but I'd admit I've had limited success. For a creature with a brain the size of a nut, squirrels are incredibly persistent and creative at getting what they want!

I'm also going to pop some popcorn and string a few strands to drape in the trees, as well as fill my feeders. Hopefully the warm weather will bring many feather visitors for tomorrow's count.

 Happy Bird Counting!

*Notes from an interview with Dick Canning, senior projects manager for Bird Studies Canada, by Evelyn Boychuk, CBC News

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

February Blahs

Some years when we've had a mild winter or not much snow, I secretly wish for a big snow storm, one that pretty much forces the city to shut down. There's nothing like a a good blizzard to give you the excuse to stay home, catch up on reading and movie watching, drink hot chocolate and cook large pots of comfort food.

This year is not one of those years.

Never the less, a big old blizzard is what we have today and all my plans to venture out have been somewhat thwarted. I could of course bundle myself up and trod through the snow that looks to be knee deep and still coming down. But the idea of yet again layering on heavy winter things and slogging through drifts makes me feel tired before I even leave the house. And really there's nothing that I need to do and nowhere I need to be that urgently. I just wish I wasn't so restless!

I was lucky to have a very busy January which meant I was out of the house every day during one of the crazy polar vortex deep freeze spells we've been dealt this year.  I was producing a number of events at different locations all over the city so I was very grateful to have access to a car and driver for that week! It was one of those times I was even more thankful to live in the city, where it's possible to get around without venturing outside for more than a brief moment!

All of that activity means I'm having a hard time adjusting to the slower pace now. I have piles of books set aside to read, a bunch of dvd's to watch and there's never any shortage of things that need to be done in the house but none of it appeals right now. Seems like my winter funk has hit and even seed catalogs aren't helping right now. Looks like I need to dream up a project or two to occupy my time.

Anyone else got cabin fever yet?