Friday, December 2, 2011

Moving is Hell

For those of you who've been wondering where the heck we've been, the following pictures should serve as an explanation.  In the middle of November, we finally managed to get back to Ontario to empty out our storage unit.  This is a loathsome task at the best of times, but we lucked out with the weather, and were able to get everything from one unit, and a bit of our other unit, packed into a 26 foot U-Haul truck.  The hotel was kind enough to let us park the truck overnight, and we even squeezed in a visit from our daughter and her boyfriend!

As always, getting through Montreal was a nightmare.  Traffic was backed up for miles due to various reasons, including the usual construction delays, as well as a student demonstration against tuition fee hikes!  It took three hours just to get through the centre of Montreal.  The weather was also a factor, as usual.  Quebec and New Brunswick seem to be prone to torrential rain!  At least it was not snow!  We took our time and stopped for the night at hotels along the way, and three days later we were back in Nova Scotia. 

Although mainland Nova Scotia is lovely, it's always a relief to cross the Canso Causeway onto Cape Breton Island.  Once we got home, of course, the challenge was to unpack the truck!  A lot of the contents was to go into the barn.  It had been raining heavily and the ground was soaked and soft.  Backing the truck up to the barn to unload was one thing, but getting the tires to grip on the soft, wet grass after we were finished was a nightmare.  There was zero tread on the tires, and even with the application of cardboard and gravel, they just kept spinning out and bogging down in the mud.  It took a great deal of time, effort and cursing, not to mention barrowloads of gravel, but slowly the truck inched forward, and finally Paul managed to get it back onto the driveway.  Good job the truck was half empty, and there was no incline to speak of, otherwise we would never have made it off the grass!  We offloaded the rest of the stuff, and soon the house was filled to bursting point with boxes and furniture.  We'd spent so much time struggling with the truck, we had pretty much had it by that time.  Needless to say, we were glad to drop that truck back to U-Haul in Baddeck!  It was then that the U-Haul rep told us that their trucks are only fitted with summer tires, all year round, even though the trucks are rented out from Florida to Alaska! 

Here is the offending beast, next to Boris the tractor to give you a sense of scale:

And here are some pictures of our house, stuffed to the brim, and Paul, enjoying a well-deserved beer:

You'll not be surprised to learn that since then, we've been spending most of our time unpacking!  One of the bedrooms is still stuffed to the ceiling with boxes and stuff, but eventually we hope to find a place for everything.  It's actually amazing how well our belongings are fitting into this house - and now, finally, it really feels like home.

P.S. We just beat the weather back before the first big snowstorm of the season hit, and we had to use our snowblower (which had been in storage!) - imagine driving that U-Haul truck in a white-out?!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Fall Visitors

Every season brings its different wildlife visitors to the gardens and woodland.  I had recently hung up a suet bird feeder, which soon attracted a pair of blue jays.  Every house we've lived in, we've always had blue jays visit, and so it was great to see them here.  They've been scolding me for picking their grapes!  I managed to get some photos:

Such pretty birds!  And they always look as though they're posing for their portrait.  :)

We've also had a visit from a pair of ruffed grouse.  I think it's the male I've been seeing around the garden - first in the apple tree, and then on the grass collecting fallen berries.  It was definitely the male the second time because he was fanning his tail and had his ruff of collar feathers standing up.  This is a mating display, and I was lucky to catch it on camera:

He took a few turns around the base of the apple tree, then started strutting towards me.  He put away his feather display and became more interested in food, picking up fallen berries in his beak.

He's a beautiful bird.  The previous day, I think it must be the same grouse, was up our apple tree:

He was making some hilarious faces at me through the kitchen window:

Between the apples, berries and rosehips, we're certainly keeping him well-fed!  Maybe if his mating display is successful, in the spring we'll see chicks ...  :)

I'll keep posting wildlife photos, as and when I can capture them.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Volunteers at Work

It's always great to have volunteers here at Willow Retreat.  Over Thanksgiving, we were lucky enough to have some help from a couple of young people from Ontario.  Earlier in the summer, we had made a nice firepit area using a few wheelbarrow-loads of gravel:

The gravel keeps the grass from getting burned and also provides a place to stack firewood.

When our volunteers arrived, we already had a few jobs lined up for them.  Remember the old bridge that Paul replaced?  Well, all those rotted timbers were still stacked in the trailer.  Firewood, you say?  Sure, but a lot of them were still good, too good really to just burn.  What the firepit lacked was a bench with a backstop to keep the cold and wind at bay while folks enjoyed the fire ...

Enter our volunteers: young, strong and ready to work ... and a lovely sunny, warm day for it too.  Did I mention this was the middle of October?  No shirt required...

Of course, before work starts, a certain amount of goofing around is required ...  :)

The first job was to fetch all the old wood from the trailer, then remove any rusted nails.  Then, select some pieces to make the bench.

Next, drive in the uprights for the bench.

Two uprights done, and the base piece.

Putting the backstop boards in place.  Old (but still good) wood is perfect for this kind of use.  It may no longer be capable of supporting a truck across a bridge, but it can certainly make a great fireside bench!

Everyone still hard at work.  Notice that the bench seat is now in place.

Ta-da!  The finished article.  There's even a ledge for your drink!

This is a great example of the eco-philosophy at work.  Why buy new wood when you have perfectly decent wood lying around?  These timbers, having outlived their usefulness as a bridge, are now re-used as a firepit bench.  With a little ingenuity and thought, many items can be re-used in this way, thus reducing our drain on the planet's dwindling resources.

A lovely fire, and a beautiful, functional bench to sit and enjoy!

Thanks to our volunteers Robyn and Luke for their hard work!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Anyone for Applesauce?

There are times when the difference between living in an urban or suburban area, and living on the edge of a very small rural community, are thrown into sharp relief.  For example, you can't pop down to the local store and be there and back in ten minutes.  This becomes quite irritating when *insert big box store name here* continue to import shoddy goods from China, have customers return them because they don't work, then proceed to simply put them back on the shelf.  In the same packaging, but stuck down with tape.  With the same price as if they were new and unused.  To my mind, this is fraud.

So, we made the hour and a half trip to Home Depot (there, I said it), bought five puck-style LED lights to illuminate the dim corner of the living room so that we could read.  Then we travelled an hour and a half back home, whereupon Paul wired in the lights.  Of the five, only one worked.  Now, do you think we're going to make another 3 hour round trip just to take them back?  Of course not.

The other puck-style LED light that we purchased to go over the kitchen sink (so I could actually see to wash the dishes) was also faulty; it worked okay, but the on/off switch wire is loose and therefore you have to jiggle it to get the light to stay on.  Not to mention the Philips LED light bulb which doesn't work.  Not to mention the probably fifty other items we've bought from Home Depot that either didn't work or were broken or missing parts.  Once again, an example of the big box store mentality - buy everything cheap from China, flog it out at a profit, and who cares if it works or not because if the customer returns we can just stick it back on the shelf again, and some other mug will buy it.

So, we're now stuck with a bunch of puck lights that don't work, and which we can't return because they've been wired in.  Nice.

The other thing we've noticed since we've been here is that women are persona non grata in hardware stores and builder's merchants, as well as auto mechanic shops and welding establishments.  In Cape Breton, you see, women are not supposed to visit these places.  This has proved quite baffling to my husband, who is used to me accompanying him everywhere.  It was only after experiencing the hostile atmosphere when I was present, in contrast to the air of chummy goodwill when I waited in the car, that we realized the awful truth: women in Cape Breton are supposed to stay home and make applesauce. 

As I am, currently, home (and making applesauce) I do have to make it clear that I have no problem with this.  I have no desire to return to the corporate cellblock, and am, in fact, perfectly content to wait in the car.  When it does become an issue, however, is when my husband is away and I have to speak to these guys over the phone.  Oh, they speak to me alright.  Arrangements are made, appointments scheduled, work is booked.  The only problem is, nobody shows up.  It's like I'm invisible, even over the phone.  But as soon as Paul gets on the phone to them, what a difference!  I'm very glad that I do have a husband, because a woman alone out here would get nothing accomplished.  Except maybe, one heck of a lot of applesauce.

Puck lights - only one out of five worked.

Applesauce, anyone?

Monday, October 3, 2011

Celtic Colours

Is it the first summer storm,
Is it the colours of Fall?
Is it having so little, and yet having it all?

Lyrics from "Love" by Sugarland

On September 25, I took a bunch of photos of the leaves changing.  It was meant as a kind of panorama of the garden.  It was a gorgeous day, summer-like, and the light was wonderful.  Today, October 3, I took a few more photos, and wow, what a difference a couple of weeks makes!  The colours are now almost at their peak, and the highlands and glens are shades of rust and gold.  Not to mention, the highways and hotels are packed full of leafers from as far away as California! 

Here in Cape Breton, the Celtic Colours Festival is a major annual event.  This year it runs from 7 - 15 October, and features concerts and ceilidhs, with fiddlers and guitarists, folk dancers and singers.  But here at Willow Retreat we have our own Celtic colours, right here in our back garden!  Here are a few photos to entice you:

These were taken September 25 ... now look at the difference:

Amazing how fast the leaves change.  The weather, as well, can take you by surprise; we had a long dry spell recently, to the point where the streams were starting to dry up.  We woke one day to a severe lack of water pressure, and thought there was a burst in the pipe ... but on further investigation, it turned out there was no water in the pipe at all!  When we walked up to the power house, the reason was obvious: the stream where we had our water intake was dry!  There was even a dead fish lying in the bottom of a dried out pool.  When you rely on water for both your household water, and your electricity, this is a bit of a problem!

After hiking up the mountain and finding that the source had not dried up, it was simply a lack of water in general, we moved the intake further upstream, and this did the trick.  (This sounds easy.  Rest assured, it was not easy.  Thank God for my husband, who knows everything there is to know about water and its temper tantrums.)  Several hundred curse words and a gallon of rum later, and we had water back.

Naturally, as soon as we had that sorted out, it decided to rain.  It's rained for about three days straight, and just started to clear a bit when I took this photo:

There's something very magical about the way the mists come down the mountain.  I guess the Celts have always migrated to the same types of landscape, whether it be the highlands of Scotland or here in Cape Breton.  Either way, it just wouldn't be Fall without the beautiful autumn leaves.  You should come and see them one day!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Autumn Soon

So I'm sitting here making apple juice, to be tranformed into apple jelly tomorrow, the house is nice and cozy, I'm listening to the sound of the rain; and a mouse runs out from underneath the woodstove and just sits there, staring at me.  Yes, it's Fall again, and this time I don't have to go home; I am home. 

The leaves have started to turn already.  Just a slight tinge of colour, but unmistakably, a change:

Around six o'clock I went out and tended the potato patch.  If there's one thing I'm learning from vegetable gardening it's that you must have patience.  I have to resist the urge to fork up our precious potatoes ... they're still thickening up their skins underground.  Every evening I go around and cover up the ones that have popped their heads out of the soil ... if you don't do this they will turn green.

I just cover them up with a handful of soil and hope for the best.  In the meantime, something has been taking a bite out of a couple of our potatoes!!  Possibly voles??  Good job the cats are decimating the vole population!

The other thing that damages potatoes is the slug.  Here is one that I caught in the act:

Eww!!  DNW!!

While I was concentrating on the potatoes, Mr. Downy Woodpecker was in the mountain ash, mocking me.  I managed to take his photo:

We've also recently had a visit from a pair of Northern Flickers, which are also members of the woodpecker family.  This happy couple were on the lawn, getting worms:

A closer look.

The bees are still feverishly working away, and it never fails to amaze me how the garden rotates; no matter the season, there is always something that bears pollen, and presumably something else that needs to be pollinated.  The hollyhocks are still in bloom, and the echinacea and sedum have just come out.  Mallow, oregano, thistles and of course the roses are still blossoming even now.

Bee on echinacea.

Bee on sedum.

And in the woods, a black toad crossed my path ...

The other night I was amazed and extremely privileged to see no less than four deer in our garden.  They sauntered around the edge of the grass, nibbling here and there, then went on their way.  One bounded across the concrete posts for the cabin, white tail bobbing as she went!  I tried to get photos, but sadly it was dusk and my camera refused to focus.  This is the only shot I managed to get which shows any kind of image at all - there really is a deer there, if you look hard enough!  You can definitely see the catchlight in his eye ...

I wonder if this is who has been nibbling our grapes?!!

Never fear, there are plenty more grapes still on the vine!

I can't write a post about autumn without including one of the most famous poems of all time, which I used to know by heart, thanks to my English grammar school ... says it all, really.

Ode to Autumn, by John Keats

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness!
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o'erbrimmed their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reaped furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers;
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too, -
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing, and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Crop Report

Hey everyone, I thought it was high time I wrote an update on all the various things we have growing.  First off, the potatoes!  I thought I was going to harvest them today, but it turns out, on further research, they need to be left a while longer in the ground.  I did hike up a few  for dinner though, and here they are:

Looking good!  But apparently I have to wait until the vines have completely wilted away, which is normally around the time of the first frost.  The reason for this is because right now, although the potatoes are fine to eat, their skins are still too thin to be effectively stored.  So I have to have patience and wait for their skins to thicken up.

This is how the potato patch looks right now.  I have to sit on my garden fork for a few more weeks!

Luckily, there's a lot more to be harvested at the moment, more than enough to keep me busy.  I've already made blackcurrant jam, blackberry jelly, and redcurrant and blueberry jam.  There are still tons of blackberries ripening, so today I bought some more mason jars.

The other crop that is definitely ready to harvest are the apples.  I'm starting with the wild apples because they're already falling off the tree.

Plenty more where these came from!  Once I have a couple of boxes full, I'll make apple jelly and apple butter.

In the meantime, our other trees are loaded with eating apples, which will be ready to pick very soon.  I have to beat the moose to them this year!

The other thing I have to beat the moose to is the grapes.  I checked out the vine today and noticed that something has already started to nibble a few bunches.  I think I'm going to have a few dozen jars of grape jelly for the Farmer's Market ...

I'm no grape expert, but I'm wondering if these are Concord grapes?  They're green, quite small, round and firm.  They taste a little tart, but good.  I'm open to advice, as well as recipes!  We don't have our winemaking equipment here yet, but next year ... !

As you may remember, I'm trying to grow tomatoes in a pot, as well as herbs from seed in the garden.  I've had some success with the herbs, and the tomato plant is growing slowly.

Note: I've never done this before.  Does it show?

A nice crop of parsley.

Sage is doing well.

Thyme seems to need little attention to grow profusely.

My rosemary didn't germinate, but no matter - I discovered that rosemary is already growing in another part of the garden, along with oregano, golden oregano, and chives!

Flowering oregano, covered in ecstatic bees.

Golden oregano. According to my son (who is a culinary arts student) this is a euphemism among his classmates for another kind of - ahem - "herb" entirely ...


Now, I need your help with this one.  Anyone have any idea what this plant is?  It's growing in the herb garden, and smells like onions.

Mystery Plant ... ??

Last but not least, our pumpkins are doing great!  We planted them from seed, straight into the garden, and very late.  Behold:

We have seven plants, each of which has three or four pumpkins growing.

A bee on a pumpkin flower.  It's very important to have a healthy bee population in your garden, as they are the little workers that pollinate your crops.   No bees, no crops!

I don't know how long pumpkins take to grow, but I'm hoping by Halloween these guys will be a decent size!

Now if you'll excuse me, I have some freshly-dug potatoes to cook!