Welcome to Larch Grove Farm, an off-grid organic farm and artist residency in northern Alberta, Canada. We’re building home from the ground up: join us on the blog for photos of a farm in progress, Open Farm dates, books for sale, our food box program, and much more.

Latest from the blog

Starting the Market Garden

Whew! Greetings from the North Country and the season of eighteen-hour farm days, friends! Wherever you are, I hope the returning light and the gorgeous green and flowers everywhere are brightening your spirits.

Larch Grove is waking from a long seven-month winter hiatus. We were busy all winter clearing ground for the new farmhouse (all going well, 2017 will be the Year of the Farmhouse!), and winter is the ideal time for chainsawing and moving dead brush, doing rudimentary stumping, and watching where the light falls midwinter to see how it’ll affect a rooftop solar array.

With the ending of the worst night frosts, though, and the start of the long, warm days, the chainsaw got stashed away in the toolshed and we turned our minds to the market garden. The running sap gums up the saw, and with the fire bans in the North Country, we were afraid to continue using a warm engine out in the bush, so the season ended as it always does: in its own time, just as another season begins, and a different sort of work. But stay tuned on the blog this fall for more details and photos as we begin building the road and drop a well for the farmhouse…it’s gonna be an exciting time as we stretch out in a new direction on this home-built farm. Once the big house is ready (well, biggish; at 600 square feet, it’s gonna feel palatial), the cabin will be all set for our guests and visiting artists!

SEED-STARTING. Let’s talk about it, friends! I don’t know about you, but it is my favourite time of the year after a long winter when my mind is feeling a bit withered and colour-starved. Those first seedlings popping their heads up under lights in the grow beds…heaven.

All sorts of wee plants getting their start in a cool room under lights

When we’re in the city, a few fluorescent tubes over a grow bed makes a pretty good starting place for our market garden crops, but the seedlings really need heat to get them germinating, not light. Once they break the soil surface, it’s then they need consistent light. If you’re off the grid, a few cinderblocks or bricks on top of your wood stove to create thermal mass works a treat for starting trays of seedlings without electricity. Once they’re up, transfer them to a cool, bright window (don’t fry them in the full sun right off the bat), and voila – off-grid starter plants.

I have a severe chemical allergy, which is one of the reasons we started the farm – so much so that Thomas calls me the canary in the coal mine. If something is sprayed or treated, I’ll welt up within minutes of touching or eating it (yeah, restaurants are all sorts of fun!). When we start plants or propagate cuttings, we try to steer away from chemical inputs – not just for me, but because we don’t want any of that stuff ending up in our garden. Here are a couple of easy tricks if you want to dodge the chemicals this spring!

1) Chamomile. If you’ve started seeds, you know that one of the worst problems they face is damping off. It’s a fungal issue and can be caused by any number of different fungi, but most often Pythium. When you plant small seeds into cold soil and water them continually, they become subject to damping off, and it can kill a tray of new starts faster than just about anything. Now, there are a few chemical drenches you can use, but if you want to dodge those, I highly recommend chamomile tea! We’ve used it for years now, and we just about never lose a seedling to damping off. To make it, simply grab a box of your favourite pure chamomile tea, brew three bags fairly strong, let the tea cool, and cut it with regular tap water. Water in your seedlings for a couple of days using the mix, then switch back to regular water. Works like a charm. I’ve also heard of folks using cinnamon – I haven’t tried it, but you might want to! I bet it smells great in the seeding room.

Any kind of chamomile tea will work a treat

2) Willow water. For those who are a little leery of using rooting hormone, willow water is quick and easy. Spring is the best time to make this natural rooting agent, when the new growth is out, but you can really make it all summer long. Willows contain two things, salicylic acid and indolebutyric acid, that help cuttings to root naturally and to fight off fungal infections that can take over cuttings rooted using other methods. It’s really easy to make: in the spring, cut off a handful of new growth (if you’re making willow water later in the season, use the fresh tips of the branches). Pull off the leaves and cut up the willow pieces into one-inch bits. Put them in a jar and fill the jar with water, then leave the concoction in the sun for three days to “brew.” Discard the willow bits, and you’re good to go. There are a ton of variations on this recipe, but they all come down to willow twigs + water + brewing time. Can’t go wrong.

One more thing I couldn’t do without to start our farm garden? It’s not a natural remedy, but it’s as vital to me as chamomile tea: our greenhouse! Anyone can make one. It doesn’t have to be fancy and it doesn’t have to be big. Ours is an ugly bug made out of a cheap Costco carport that we covered with clear tarps and built end pieces for. It’s homely as all get-out, but it raises a perfect crop of tomatoes, peppers, and herbs every summer in a climate where we often have night frosts as late as July. Since we built the greenhouse, I’ve never lost another crop of tomatoes. Bliss!

Homemade greenhouse on the farm

Happy growing, friends! We’ll be sharing more posts from the field over the coming weeks, and we’d love to hear about what you’re looking forward to this summer. Growing a new variety? Planting a garden for the first or the ninety-fifth time? Let’s share stories!

Waking the Bees

We started our small apiary at Larch Grove last spring with two hives, and the summer went so well that we decided to add two more this year, increasing the count by two hives each coming year until we reach ten. We’re planning to run a small local apiary where folks will know exactly which hive their honey comes from and where the bees have been harvesting in a given summer.

Our first two hives, Blue and Purple colonies (named handily for the colour of their supers, the boxes that make up the hives), seemed to settle in very well during their first summer at the farm. The colonies grew strong and large, and the hives rose into impressive stacks at the foot of the garden.

Bees

Experienced beekeepers often say that each colony has its own temperament, and they’re so right! Even just in the short while we’ve had our girls, we’ve noticed a definite mood in each colony. Blue hive is upbeat and busy all the time. I swear those bees would fly into the night if they could. They’re incredibly gentle, though, and they tolerate us even when we’ve broken the hive right open to inspect the lowest layers of brood. Purple hive has always been the quieter of the two, slower to get agitated, and also slower to get going in the morning. We suspected from the start that there wasn’t a strong queen in Purple hive because she took a lot longer to get laying, but by summer’s end, we thought she’d done okay.

Our first winter with the girls was a mild one, but cold isn’t the true enemy of bees. It’s the damp that kills them. We bundled the girls up into insulated coats and caps for their hives, and they seemed to be doing well. We’d listen at the hives in the depths of winter and hear the bees buzzing faintly, cozied up around their queens, moving through the honey stores. Blue colony seemed to be much more adept at this than Purple; there were days when we couldn’t hear our Purple girls at all. Only the small heat from the colony, framing the hive entrances with ice crystals, showed they were still alive. We worried and worried, but we couldn’t open the hives because the -20C cold would kill them instantly. They were on their own until the spring.

We knew something was up in the early spring with our Purple girls. Blue hive was thriving; when the days were warm enough to do our first inspections, we saw that they’d drained most of their 75 pounds of honey stores and had even begun opening up the extra frames of honey we’d popped in on a warm day in February:

But Purple hive was in a bad state. Most of their honey was still there, untouched. We could see on a few frames where the bee ball had moved in the hive, huddled around the queen, draining honey cells to feed the group, but the traces were faint. The most damning sign of all was instantly clear: no new brood. Blue hive’s queen was laying prolifically, and the hive was setting in pollen and starting to put up honey. Purple hive was eerily empty. The bees bobbled around, looking lost. Not a single larva. Not a single egg.

Purple hive had lost its queen.

We’re pretty sure it was the late spring cold that did it, after a long (though relatively mild, for us) winter that only saw a few days hit the -30C mark. We suspect that her colony, a bit smaller and therefore a bit weaker, had a tougher time keeping the hive temperature at 35-37C and the entrances ice-free. That made it harder for the bee ball to move around and access warmed honey, and it also made it harder for the hive to stay well-ventilated. Somewhere along the way, damp and lower numbers working in tandem, the hive just wasn’t strong enough, and the queen didn’t make it.

You can see from the photo above that Purple hive started the spring incredibly small. Even in the brood box, the bees numbered in the hundreds instead of in the thousands. There was a lot of empty space in the supers where there should have been bees.

There are a few things you can do with a queenless hive, we learned. If it’s a recent loss and the hive is in a decent state, you can purchase a new queen and release her into the hive after a couple of days, once the bees have gotten used to her scent. If there’s still brood from the old queen, the new bees will be hatching out and there should be enough bees to take up all the roles in the hive, from nursing to foraging, without being too disrupted by the introduction of the new queen. But if the hive is in a bad way, as Purple colony was early in the spring, with no new brood and all the bees aging out rapidly, it can be a good idea to divvy up the surviving bees amongst the other, stronger hives, as long as those introduced bees are healthy. Then, in the early summer, if you’ve got a colony that’s thriving (as our Blue hive is), you can do a split to keep the larger colony from swarming to look for more room. The split bees will raise up their own queen from the frames of brood you put into the new super, and because you’ll put in frames of pollen and honey, too, they’ll have food to get the new colony going.

This is the method we’re following with Purple hive. We’ve divvied up its remaining bees into the Blue, Yellow, and Green colonies, and in early summer, we’ll do a split mostly off Blue colony before they get too blocked up and want to swarm. Purple colony will be reestablished from some of our docile hard workers out of Blue.

Beekeeping has been an amazing journey so far. There’s been a lot of trial and error, a lot of great advice from a beekeeping friend, and our early immersion into the incredibly strong beekeeping community in our province. There’s also been some perplexity and heartache, not always knowing the best choice for our girls. But we talk to others, we read, we listen, and we learn…from the hives, too. The bees tell us a lot about what they need and what’s going on through their behaviour, temperaments, and energy.

For now, the apiary is down to three, but within a month, Purple colony will bounce back into being. And a good thing, too: this is the first year of our organic farm flower business, and the cutting garden is going to be some kind of heaven for those girls of ours when they get out foraging. Stay tuned for more photos as the flower gardens get going, and many more stories from the growing apiary at Larch Grove.

I Promise You

Wow, it’s been a long time since my last post. I apologize for that, friends.

We’ve missed your company out on the farm, and missed showing you all the amazing, heart-filling stuff that’s been going on over the past few weeks while SPRING has finally descended on us up here in the North Country!

It was a bit of a mad coincidence that my last post talked about being scared, and how at some point when you’re doing anything you love to the bones, you have to decide what you’re going to push past and what you’re going to let stop you. Out at the farm, there’s not a heck of a lot of time for sweating the small stuff because the big stuff can feel so…darn…big.

I’ve been away and offline for health reasons. Gonna spare you the details, but along with so many of you out there, friends, we’ve got plenty we can’t control, and stuff that we’ll have to live with in our bodies for the rest of our lives. For many of us, it’s stuff that will get worse as we get older, and some days, that’s just hard. I dunno about you, but when I have down days (or weeks) health-wise and they impact my farming, teaching, and writing (the three things I love most on this earth to do), I get pretty blue. So I spent a few weeks resting, putting in a lot of time near windows where green was beginning to pop outside, and cuddling our medicine cats. They are good energy, those cats. And I was lucky as all get-out that I have a wonderful ally and partner in Thomas, and he spent every moment that he wasn’t in the classroom by my side, helping me get through. Man oh man, allies are the best thing ever. You know who I mean, friends; you’ve got someone like that, or maybe several someones if you’re super lucky, in your own life. We oughtta hug them while we can – we owe them big thanks!

BUT, while I was flat on my butt and recovering, something incredible was happening outside – SPRING. Yeah, I keep capitalizing it, sorry. I’m excited. I’m a farmer. Spring means that all those plans and drafts and seeds and dreams finally get to be planted out in the good earth. And spring means the birds come back and there’s more light in the days, which, after our long old winter in the North Country, is a sight to behold.

We planted over 200 narcissus bulbs out in the road verges in the cold of last October, and now this is happening on the farm:

Daffodils

And this will be as well, soon (wolf willow flowers, which smell like heaven):

You can see why I’m so excited! It feels as though, after a low-light winter, all of our senses are suddenly awake and have kicked into high gear again. The sight of cranes circling over. The scent of early grass after rain brings the dust down. The sound of the first wood frogs in the pond. Everything is amazing and hyper-sensory.

This song got me through the past few weeks (it’s my go-to song when my body knocks me flat and I can’t do anything about it). It tells me to carry on, to push past pain and discouragement. Some times are harder than others, but this time, I knew there would be spring at the end of the tunnel to meet me. It’s a great song. If you’ve had a tricky winter too, friends, I’d like to pass this tune along to you.

“I Promise You” – Show of Hands