Our gardens in many lights

dimanche 10 juillet 2016

This land of rocks we tend from now on

Cet article en français.

Louise :
It's a dream my husband and I entertained for a long time : to be the proud owners of a piece of land out in the country. We both wanted it from a long term investment perspective. Like our grandparents and parents used to say: "Land doesn't rot." They wanted to express with these words that land is always a good investment. Furthermore, on a piece of land, you can produce some (or all) of your own food, if you are so inclined, like I am. In my permaculturist's and gardener's eyes, it's a very appealing perspective.

Serge, as a proud owner, patrols  our new
domain on his "new" used quad.

My husband wanted to get closer to nature, he also wanted to produce maple syrup, walk the land on foot or in snowshoes, even ride a Quad or a snowmobile. He wanted to work tractors and heavy machinery (his kid's heart, playing with trucks and the likes, never went away) and loved the idea of having construction projects all around. We wanted a second home too, no matter how humble.

This garden intrigues you? Patience !
We will talk soon about it.

For me, the appealing thing was the prospect of gardening on a bigger scale and I wished to experiment new ways of doing it. I dreamed of fruit trees (not just one or two), I was looking forward to harvest from the forest and raise animals and finally be able to enjoy fully a sense of security based upon a greater degree of self reliance. We were both ready to start a project that we would first share between the both of us and then later on with others, in different ways.
Of course, we knew that there is a difference between the dream and reality and this turned out to be true enough right from the start. But we kept on and 3 years later we are still here, without any regrets, our spirits imbued with wiser humility than before, our heads still bursting from numerous ideas, our hearts filled with a beautiful appreciation of this life's experience.

Our land extends over almost 80 acres. It's registered as a small farm, meaning not enough land for a real, commercial farm - according to modern industrial criterias at least. It's situated in a rocky region, but the land itself is rich in water, is forested and the terrain is rugged and, at places, steep. From an agricultural point of view, it's a woodland, composed of 80% mixed trees varying in maturity, 10% monoculture of conifers that have been planted too close together, 5% pastures mostly gone wild and another 5% of land in use on which there are two small houses, a couple of buildings in bad shape, lawns, access roads and a small lake fed by one of the many natural springs we have. Those springs are everywhere on the land, they generally gush from the base of rocky mounds. The land also as a sand pit, a cedar patch, two permanent creeks and many more of less swampy areas.
As a forewarn, for every pretty sight of the land I can present you, I could post an equally horrible picture.
We bought something in the line of the farm featured in this old american sitcom called Green acres.

First year, summer 2013 :

If you do a little maths, you'll discover that it took us 3 years before we even talked about this crazy adventure on our blog. Our energy has been almost entirely channeled to simply start to put this property back in shape, you see. We also needed to do major reparations and get a general feel for the land and its true potential and to assess what kind of projects were doable here. A few examples of the things we did here in those 3 years: since the terrrain was pretty rugged, the previous landlords used all kinds of junk to fill up every hollow, and buried them under a foot or two of dirt. With the settlement of the diverse materials, some rubbish reemerged; add up what we dug up by accident, through random shovelling or through horses' stampeading, and it started to make a rather impressive collection. Here's a sample of our archeological finds up to now : a metal boxspring, a radiator, many plastic buckets half-filled with hard cement, a plastic bag filled with coat hangers. We also found a lot of stuff in piles on the surface: rolls of barbed wire, metal barrels so rusted they have collapsed on themselves, old couch cushions half-burried in dead leaves. The previous landowner neglected the buildings' maintenance, including the smallest house. Furthermore, since he had a tendency to collect every bit of scrap (you never know when you might need that old piece of wood to repair the dog house or that rusted screw for the machinery!), he passed on us quite a mess, dispersed here and there like weeds in a garden : for instance, 4 old lawnmowers, not one of them in working order.

As a result, we spent most of that first summertime solidifying handrailings, reparing leaking plumbing, burning rotten wood piles, emptying basements and buildings off their junk, driving loads of scrap metal to the junkyard (at least we made enough from all the metal we sold to pay for the gas for said trips) and making a 30 foot long (10 meters) giant junk heap for the municipality's trash collection day. Poor guys ! Reminder: 3 years later, we are still not finished with all of that.

This camping trailer has been our home during our
three first summers on the farm. We towed it to a
discreet little nook to gain some privacy and to
surround it with beauty. By the way, the trailer
needs a good renovation as well.

The good side of this is that the last landlord left us a threw of treasures, too. For example, we were left with some fine gardening tools and a good quantity of containers and trays for seedlings. We were also left with a sturdy garden table, old carpentry tools in good working order, good maple water buckets with covers, a woodchipper, a brushcutter, a circular saw, a 23 feet camping trailer - model dating from 1976. It provided us with a roof right from the start, but as it was parked right in front of the smallest house's living room window, the overall effect was utter uglyness, both from inside and outside the house.
Serge working "the thing".

Let's add to this long list of material mismanagement the fact that a friend of my dear sister - a newly retired farmer - sold his farm shortly after we bought ours and in the process, gave us or sold us for peanuts a few pieces of machinery and material in excellent working order and found for us an old tractor for a good price. In exchange, we gave shelter to what he didn't want to part with : his own tractor, his Quad, plus the only horse he didn't sell or give away.

Since the buildings were already full of treasures not yet sorted from the junk, we had to buy five used Tempo shelters to protect from the elements this new and unexpected arrival of goods.

True treasures : cedar posts, trailers, bricks from a demolition site, wood boards, all this bric-a-brac lies here and there within view from the two houses. In the center of this picture, my sister on her friend's tractor. Her hability to drive such a beast amazed me. At the very back, a bit to the left, behind the trees, we can see the main house where she lives. On the right, the second small house, a former cabin recycled into a four-season home by one of the previous owners.

My sister's horses pass all year outside, may it be
winter or summer. They are superb, in good health,
and mightily more happy then if they were stuck inside
munching (quite litterally) the boards of their boxes. A
horse can very well tolerate our winters without
trouble, if some essential rules are observed.
First, they have to be able to protect themselves from cold
winds and glacial rains. A summary shelter enabling them

to shield themselves is thus important. They need
dry hay of very good quality and as much as they want,
fresh water, liquid of course again as much as they want,
and a suffisiant amount of caloric food so they can generate

their own heat
(oats or corn, and to add to their pleasure,
apples, carrots or fodder beets , aka mangels).
We rented the first house to my sister, since it was still in good shape. She arrived with 8 horses and easily convinced us to buy a one year old male lama for 165$, plus a transportation bill of 100$. The hard part was to build paddocks for these new tenants much quicker than it was expected in our initial plans - that year, my sister placed her energies mostly there with some help from us and other people. Since no water or electric installations were available, she had the hard task of working with electrical extensions for the water heaters and with self-emptying hoses to fill the water trays all winter, a winter that was particularly hard and cold. Right from the beginning of December, our poor llama was shivering so much we built him a temporary shelter made of straw bales walls and a wooden roof. He was comfortable from then on, but the following spring, we had to take down that shelter less the roof would fall on him since, all winter long, he had been entertaining himself by nibbling on the straw walls ! It was clear we needed a more permanent shelter. So, we made it in wood and, who knows, if we ever follow the same path as one of the pigs in the three pigs tale, maybe our llama will end up in a brick house !
During Fall and Winter of this first year, we placed about a hundred hours to build another building but that one was accidentally burned donw in February. That's just life.

Animal Life

Right from the beginning we got acquainted with the new fauna and flora around us. What a rich world!

This tiny amphibien is a eastern newt, but in
juvenile form. During this period, the newt
as a surprising coloration,
 and we name him "red eft".

Moose, deer, hare, ruffed grouse, eagle, owl, black vulture, hawk, fox, coyote, wolverine, black bear, they showed themsleves one after the other but to this day I never smelled even once a skunk's stink ! The whole province being skunk territory, this to me is a mystery... We hear the chant of trushes, blue jays, Canada warblers, sparrows,  woodpeckers and goldfinches. Up to now, I managed to identify some species of snakes, frogs and salamanders found abundantly on the proprietyPeople around the world are starting to understand that a diminution in reptile and amphibian populations is a sign of pollution. I'm thus happy to see so many of them, for me it's a sign my land is healthy and the water on it is clean and good.

From my sister's friend, we bought 300 straw bales
for 1$ each. Very cheap since, the regular price was
around 4 or 5$. I installed 150 bales  for the general
construction of the garden, and about30 for the chicken
coop. I lacked time to create a bigger garden out of all the
 straw bales, so I protected the left overs under a tarp for
winter. Only this spring did I use the remaining 
dozen of straw bales. But that blue tarp "adorned"
the scenery for over a year!
Second year
In the spring of 2014, I started the first garden. Since I decided not to plow the land, I used straw bales as a medium for plantation. Warning, it's impossible to grow things directly in bales that are perfectly dried and show no sign of rotting. There's a way to have a bale prepared to make it a garden medium, one I will talk about in a further post.

We ended up being five families sharing that garden. I was very happy that we had a nice success even on this first season.       

There was an apple harvest, too. We have more than 20 apple trees all over the place here. Since they have been pruned in their young years then left to themselves, they produce a great deal of vertical branches - perfect for producing a great deal of small imperfect fruits instead of those big, round fruits you get on properly pruned trees (althought in smaller quantities). But we still love those apples and appreciate them regardless.

  We transformed an old dog enclosure into a chicken coop to raise 60 meat chickens, that we bought at the tender age of a day old. We made it out of used materials, including an immense gray reservoir, an industrial equipment that, once on its side, was perfect to keep our young chicks warm and dry. The original enclosure, made of metal mesh, is entirely lined with chicken mesh (plus under the earth flooring as well as over the roof) to protect the chickens from predators. I put in a lot of hours to sow together each lenght of mesh with metal wire. We also constructed a corrugated tin roof. For the walls, we piled straw bales together againsts the and covered the sides exposed to the elements with plastic tarps. Straw is an excellent isolathing material and it protected the chicks from rain and cold nights really well.

At the center of this picture on the right of the wooden door, you can spot the gray rim of the reservoir: its four sides and bottom make a perfect little shelter for chilly chicks, until they are old enough to grow all their feathers. The inside of the chicken coop is warmed by two infrared lamps.

For the kind of work he had to do, Serge got himself a towable mini-excavator and spent a lot of his time digging deep trenches in different directions to bring electrical and water lines to the garden, the trailer and the animal's winter quarters. Therefore, on the second winter, it was a lot easier for my sister to complete the daily chores required for the farm animals (the horses and llama in our case). We also had ourselves delivered many truckloads of gravel to fix the parts of the roadways where tractors need to circulate.

The greehouse during construction in
the fall of 2014.
In fall, I decided it was time to build a greenhouse out of secondhand plastic sheeting and old wood.  Serge and my sister helped me on the structure. With this we managed to keep alive a lot of tomato plants until the end of November. But we made beginner's mistakes on the supporting side-beams and in winter, these collapsed. We haven't built back yet, maybe this summer or fall I'll have time for it

The sides of the greenhouse after they collapsed under the
snow at the end of February, 2015.

Third year

On the spring of 2015, I doubled the surface of the vegetable garden, using most of the left-over straw bales. There was still five families cultivating the garden, but some of them were kept away from their tasks by life's vicissitudes. Serge worked to complete  the electrical installations and together, we tripled the space dedicated for chickens by modifying the adjacent dog enclosure. It became their new covered chicken run.
Our young rooster, P'tit Coeur (Little Heart), and three of his ladies, in the new covered chicken run. I built them a sandbox.

This time around, we bought 90 young male chickens. Unexpectedly, when the time came to bring those chickens to slaughter at the end of the summer, we took the decision to spare the life of one young rooster, because he was just so friendly with us. At the same time, we discovered 5 pullets, a mistake in our order (sexing tiny chicks is a pretty delicate business!). To keep pullets for our rooster was the next logical step anyway, and they started to lay their first eggs in mid-December.

We like to say the smaller house needs lots
of love. It's more encouraging when we think
about all the work that needs to be done
on it.
In fall, Serge decided to replace the first half of the roof on the small house. The asphalt shingles had been replaced by a red tin roof. He didn't have the time to replace the other half of the roof, thought (it's the part that's lower, seen on the right in this picture). At the end of December, we notified our tennant that we would take it back for our own use. Which we did this spring ! But during the winter, we started to clean out the basement for Serge to make space for his workshop, a space he was really in need of to work comfortably out of the cold !


Happiness in picture... a sunflower, a blue sky and puffy white clouds. Our land being mostly a woodland, we don't have scenic views on this hilly land situated in the Eastern Townships. Nor can we admire the falling sun changing into this beautiful orange orb, because the tree line is hidding it from our view. We have to satisfy ourselves with the sky's display of pastel colours at dusk. But except for this low horizon view, the entire sky is always ours to contemplate, day and night. We just have to raise our heads to discover an unobstructed view of this vast, pure space where the wind plays with circling birds of prey, or pushing white clouds as if it was herding sheep through blue pastures. At night, when it is cloudless, we can admire the sky speckled with a multitude of stars  that are simply invisible in the city. To maximise the effect, we make minimal use of our outdoor lighting system, keeping it shut down as a general rule ! The raising moon is also mesmerizing and, once over the tree line, it gives us enough light for us to walk around in open spaces without artificial lighting. Listening to the chants of coyotes and great horned owls on a calm, full-moon night is a moving experience!
Of course, it's not really the conclusion! After all, the story is still going on full swing. There will always be projects stored in our heads untill we get the chance to tackle them (at least, this is what we hope). After that false start of what we thought would be the third garden of this blog, we thought is was due time to officially tell you: Welcome, welcome to the third garden of "Three gardens in Quebec"!
In summer, we let Matchou, our llama, enjoy the liberty to walk wherever he pleases (well, at least in the inhabitated part of the land), a fact that birthed a couple of memorable anecdotes! Speaking of liberty, we sometimes give the horses the same privilege, the time it takes them to mow the lawn for us.

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