homestead thinking big

Grey Waters

“The mind is like water. When it’s turbulent, it’s difficult to see. When it’s calm, everything becomes clear.” ~Prasad Mahes

“When you can’t have a shower, everything sucks, everyone is stupid, and nothing will get better ever.” ~Me

Our first year here there was a record-breaking drought in Ontario. So we found ourselves pretty immediately in the deep end of country life (but at least it was dry). Neither of us understood yet the practical realities of living on well-water. We knew nothing really about how wells worked, what a “trickle-tank” was, what were “good” and “bad” numbers on the pressure gauge, recovery time…

But you sure can learn fast as your hair gets greasy and your personal stink begins to build up.

There are only two of us here, plus animals, so our demands on the well are low. In that first year though, it was difficult to find a low that was low enough. In the end, our well performed pretty miraculously. It went dry one time, but rallied within the day. Though we didn’t actually know that at the time, because we didn’t know how to reset the pump after the emergency low-level shutoff kicked in. My poor brother and brother-in-law were visiting at the time, and I played good host by hand-pumping buckets of toilet flushing water from the rainwater tank outside. Our yelp reviews are flawless.

The well continued to empty but then slowly refill, keeping us in extremely carefully managed water while each of our neighbours’ wells went dry in turn, and they had to buy in tanks of water. We took our laundry to the laundromat in town, but otherwise army-shower and mellowyellowed — why, why must that term be so gross — our way through it.

It was a character-shaping and humbling experience, and kicked us into permanent water-wareness. The rainwater catchment system the house came with — a buried septic tank outside with a submersible pump, caching water from the roof — very quickly went from a nice-to-have to a thank-god-they-put-that-in.

Our house does not officially have a “proper” greywater system, but we have created at least a half dozen greywater mini-systems — each one a little bodge-job that saves a surprising amount of water. Together they’ve taught us that any home can have a greywater system. Invent your own! It doesn’t have to be fancyschmancy pants to make a real difference. If you have a bin in your sink to catch the water as you run the taps to get them hot, then you have a greywater system. If you turn off the tap when you’re brushing your teeth, then you are practicing water management. And that puts you solidly on Team Blue Gold, you water-saving warriors.

Here are a few of the things we do around here to stretch our water:

* The Red Jug
* Bathtub Reservoir Pond
* The Big Ugly Flushing Buckets
* Chicken Gardeners
* Roofs for Days
* Plant the Rain

Over the next few posts, we’ll share the details of these little hacks — what we do to save the rain and stretch the well. Best to share them, because the more ideas the better! Enough drops of water, and you’ll have an ocean.

chickens flora homestead

A tale of two nests

Each year our yard fills with robins, and each year, so far, at least one couple has chosen to nest on or beside our home. One year there was a robin — at least we think it was one robin — who made no fewer than 6 nests in different locations around our house and yard. There is a name for this phenomenon, though it escapes me at the moment. Essentially it’s a word for when a bird is spoiled for choice — when there are so many good spots to build that their instincts kick into overdrive and they just build and build and build. “This is a good spot! Oh no wait over here! Oh I didn’t know there was an option!” We’re in a log house, with overhangs and nooks and “branching” spots galore. Nest-building paradise.

This year, happily, is no different, with spring accompanied by a flurry of nest building. Yesterday I found this spring’s active nest — tucked up under the roof in the little lean-to space behind the house. Three beautiful eggs and watchful parents. Dad around and chirping every evening, both birds beautifully dedicated to the task at hand. Birds are marvelous parents. They share the load in many ways I didn’t understand — with many dad birds in many species taking turns sitting on the nest. In robins, the mum does the incubating, but dad is responsible for much of the baby-rearing once they’ve left the nest (“fledged”). He gets to work teaching the young ones how to robin, while mum gets started on the second set.

I’m not counting them before they hatch… let’s just call it “a few”.

I’m not counting them before they hatch… let’s just call it “a few”.

There are more eggs nestled warmly under another mum here right now. We’ve been seeing how feasible it is to embrace “broodiness” as part of our chicken keeping here. To “go broody” is when a hen wants to incubate eggs — that is, sit on them until they hatch. In chicken-keeping, it’s generally seen as a nuisance. She wants to be a mum, you want her to keep laying eggs. Broody hens will stop laying for the duration of their broodiness, and most keepers prefer to buy in pre-sexed chicks (to ensure they’re all hens) or use an electric incubator to hatch eggs. There are many reasons for this way of doing things, and I see the value in some, though not all, of them. The bigger conversations around chicken breeds, what is sustainable, and what happens to the roosters, is a chat for another time.

Each year at least one of our hens has gone broody. And broodiness is notoriously “contagious”’; one year we had 3 of our hens go broody at once. Not a lot of omelettes that spring. That was before we were ready to try letting broodiness play out, so it wasn’t until last year (our 3rd spring) that we were ready to try hatching some babies.

Our beautiful mutt hen Margie, who passed away in February, was our springtime mum, hatching out 3 babies last year. Two roosters and a hen: Pip, Squeak, and Beak. Margie was a fabulous mum. She did all the right things and it was gorgeous to watch her at work. Letting your broody hen raise the babies has many benefits and one is that you don’t actually have to do much. So long as you are keeping all your chickens sheltered and fed, the mum chicken will look after the little chicks herself — keeping them warm and fed and teaching them How-to-Chicken.

It seems Margie taught them well, because this year, totally surprising both Neil and I, little Beaky is the one to go broody! We’d been keeping an eye on SooZee, our silkie, who goes broody every year, and Haggis, our red sex-link, who’s been showing signs. But by late April, there was no denying that Beak was raring to go. We had put practice eggs (plastic easter eggs) in a nest box, to see if any of the chickens would sit on them. We’re looking to “staff up” our flock, so we were happy to encourage broodiness. Beak’s been on the plastic eggs consistently for nearly a week, with all the accompanying squawking at us when we disturbed her, so it was time to swap in the real deal.

Last night we tucked four eggs under Beak that we had set aside for hatching. All were laid within the past week, and kept carefully stored, so that we could put them under Beak all at once and they’d hatch on the same day. As we waited for confirmed broodiness, we’ve been cycling out the older eggs we’d set aside — they’re only viable stored for up to a week — and much to my delight, this timing means that we were able to pop a SooZee egg under her! If it hatches, it will be a silkie-easter egger cross. Chicken eggs are 21 days to hatch, so we’ve marked our calendars. Life is full of twists, turns, cul-de-sacs, and hard realities, and who knows if these eggs will come to hatch, and if they do, whether the chicks will be healthy and/or be able to join our flock. But there is always space for joy, all swirled in with the realities of life. So in you go little beauties — hope to meet you some day!


homestead thinking big

Life in the Maker’s Dozen Woods

Home, painted with homemade inks.

Home, painted with homemade inks.

Folks understood the value of our small Toronto condo, but they didn’t seem to understand the value of a little log house in 25 acres of forest. We were asked over and over, “But what will you do with 25 acres of woods?” Our answer was if we did nothing except keep it as woods, we’d be doing a great job. And whether others could see the value of this place or not, it’s proven to be even more priceless than we’d imagined.

After moving to Stockdale, my husband Neil and I — Hi! I’m Kate — co-founded this company, Maker’s Dozen: an independent Canadian maker studio and experimental workshop. We wanted to become more direct participants in the maker movement. Our official motto is “Try. Learn. Share. Repeat.” Though the unofficial one is probably “make everything”.

We’re exploring our potential not to rely on a single product or skill, but seeing if a diversity of activities can make us resilient. There is Irish in my ancestry, and perhaps fear of relying too heavily on a single crop runs deep in my potato-farming DNA.

We moved here because we were looking to leave Toronto. Our West Queen West neighbourhood had become far cooler than we are, and the diversity, small independent shops, and strong sense of community — between retired people, new immigrants, singles, young couples, and middle-aged families — was quickly being replaced by a 20 and 30-something homogeneity — and bars on bars on bars. We’re both well past our drinking-is-fun age, and well into our “maybe we should brew our own beer” years. Both of us have always loved and sought out green spaces. In part we lived in Toronto deliberately to try and keep our footprint on the planet small and light. But it was time to make a greener place our home. More trees please.

The people of Toronto are pushed to connect with nature by “escaping” the city. City-locked folks feel the deficit of nature in their everyday lives, sometimes acutely. I love Toronto, and you will not find me badmouthing urban living. There are solid arguments for density and urbanity on an overburdened planet. But Toronto lags behind in some important life support infrastructure.

Toronto does not have enough nature. There are green spaces, but they remain disconnected, and they are not expanding at anywhere close to the rate needed to support the evergrowing population. Tall towers are built, but instead of building the green-frastructure needed to support healthy urban life, developers pay fees and barter — and opportunities to connect with wildlife and green in Toronto stagnates. The few new “parks” that appear are concrete voids with a few sickly trees mounted on unreachable plinths. Like the last few wild creatures trapped in zoos.

I believe in an “us”, but not a “them”. We learn by sharing, exchanging, and growing. Exchanging knowledge, experiences and innovations makes everyone richer. The city needs the support of the country to understand, appreciate, and feel included in nature. The country needs the city to want to make good decisions to protect resources that cannot be recreated. It is much easier to devastate and exploit a planet if you are disconnected from it. We don’t want to leave the city and the folks who live there behind. We want to build bridges, reconnecting the best of urban and rural life, ideas, and innovations.

Very shortly after we moved here, we had easily a half-dozen requests from friends not-jokingly asking if they and their kids could come to nature camp at Auntie Kate and Uncle Neil’s. Many parents are now one or two or more generations away from a family farm or cottage — who do not have woods to go to, but who of course still crave that connection.

One of my favourite moments was when one of our young visitors, a little girl named Piper, opened her eyes on a sap collecting day and the first thing she said was “we better get going, we have a lot of work to do!”. Kids crave messy muddy nature absolutely, though adults do as well; adults also want to fill their ears with the melodies of spring peepers, great horned owls and birdsong. To learn new sights, sounds, and skills.

From ‘The Hybrid Mind’:
“I once met a man who trained young people to become cruise ship pilots. He said he encountered two kinds of students. One kind grew up mainly indoors, spending hours playing video games and working on computers. These students were quick to learn the ship’s electronics, a useful talent, the instructor explained. The other kind of student grew up spending a lot of time outdoors often in nature. They, too, had a necessary talent. ‘They actually know where the ship is.’

He wasn’t being cute. To him, the ultimate student would be one with both sets of abilities, abilities that come from both virtual and natural experience. “We need people who have both ways of knowing the world,” he added.”

We’re in love with our woods, and relish each season we get to observe. We are constantly learning something new. Where do the bloodroot, wild geraniums, and mayapples grow thickest. What does a germinating acorn look like. Where do the flying squirrels nest? Where do the glow-in-the-dark mushrooms grow?

So much life calls our woods home, or at least passes through — deer, coyote, owls, mustelids, porcupine, rabbits, raccoons, fox. Chipmunks, squirrels, luna moths, millipedes, milk snakes, nightcrawlers, grouse. Pileated woodpeckers. Woodcocks, flickers, oven birds, brown creepers. Fireflies. I spend the snowier winters and muddier springs following tracks and scat, and setting up our trail camera to photograph the animals. We share what we find, and what it taught us — what does scat tell you about the nature of an animal, what do tracks say about what it was up to. What stories can we read in the snow.

We focus on the health of our mast trees, aware that the food they create supports a diversity of wildlife. Early spring food sources like poplar and sumac that benefit birds and mammals, but also bees. We limit our trail networks to preserve as large a forest interior as we can manage, and are rewarded with seeing baby fawn. I volunteer at Sandy Pines Wildlife Rescue Centre in Napanee, and the health and safety of our forest means we’ve already been able to use it as a reintroduction site for rescued wildlife, ready to return to the wild.

Our most important objective here is ensuring the health of our woods extends well beyond our time with it — that our woods will have the chance to be a healthy habitat and ecosystem that outlives us, hopefully by a good long while.

Finding the balance between our digital work, crafts, workshops, forage, and education all connected back to our studios and woods is work in progress and something we’ll probably be figuring out for… oh, a few more decades. But it’s deeply fulfilling, and these woods are the place we always most want to be. We got here later than we might have liked, but just in time to spend the rest of our lives here.

“I spent the summer traveling. I got halfway across my backyard” – Louis Agassiz, Swiss Naturalist