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Working Through the Grey Days

Happy January from Larch Grove!

We hope you’re well after the holidays, and that you’ve enjoyed a time of rest and abundance with family and friends.

We took some time away from the blog over the late months of 2016, mainly because the start of the winter means that both of us are off the farm more often than usual during the weekdays as we return to our teaching jobs for the cold months. In the classroom or the lecture hall, we enjoy talking with our students about the land, and all through the deep winter, we save like mad for the farm and our plans for the spring garden. It’s a heck of a lot to juggle, but it makes the winter months of work well worth the effort. It’s reassuring to know that our farm will be properly set up for the spring and summer, and we get to have some pretty great discussions about what makes living on the land so grounding.

January and February on the Prairies are the months of deep cold, more often than not. The lights and festivities of Christmas are over, and spring is four or five months out. Internally, we know the solstice has passed and the light is coming back into the days, but at the start of January, we can’t see much evidence of that yet. The months after Christmas are often the dreariest ones to push through.

Low light and deep snow in the market garden at the farm

Cold season visitors to the bird table

Like so many of you who grow, garden, and dream, the main thing that sees us through the dark months is the thought of getting our hands back into the soil. Catalogues have been arriving in the post since November, and we’ve sent in most of our seed orders for the spring and summer to come. Small bundles of seed packets arriving in the mailbox make for a welcome sight!

Garden planning

Another few weeks, and we’ll start the perennials under grow lights so they’re ready for spring planting in the garden. It always feels slightly sneaky to sow out lavender and rosemary in cell packs in January, as though you’re getting a sly jump on the season right under winter’s nose. We’ll also sow some early greens to feed garden cravings as the light returns and the days lengthen. Sunflower shoots, pea shoots, and cut-and-come-again greens will brighten salads and sandwiches until the market garden thaws.

Spring dreaming…of early salad!

And in the meantime, there are photos, catalogues, and garden plans to linger over in the small spaces between work and dark. What are you planning for the season ahead, friends? What are you holding up against the grey months of January and February until the sun tracks back again?

Over the Threshold

The days are hovering at just twelve hours of light now, and the sun has slid past the bright spill of midsummer into the old gold of autumn. It’s time to roll the season, friends.

Frost-touched Golden Bantam sweet corn stalks in the market garden, set against the dark of the muskeg spruce

At the farm, this is the season of quiet, constant work. We’ve both returned to our teaching jobs for the school year, and the farming now happens in evenings, weekends, holidays. We’re no different from all the generations of farmers who worked an off-farm job at the same time they were out on the land. It’s the presence of a ceiling overhead that signals the season for us, and the good energy of new classes, as much as the sound of the geese and cranes fleeing south again.

The newly filled pond by the cabin, almost too deep for the moose now

With the shift toward autumn, we’re moving toward the end of certain projects for the season. The pond that we worked on all last summer and began landscaping this spring is now more than half full from our mad summer rains. It’s a soft, beautiful presence on the farm with the changing trees reflecting in its surface and migrating birds stopping down to drink.

Part of the honey harvest from our steadily growing apiary

We robbed the hives a short time ago, making sure to leave plenty of winter stores for the bees, and also feeding them up with extra sugar water to get them as ready as possible for the long, cold winter. And it looks as though it means to be long and cold – our first frost was in late August, and now the mornings begin with the crisp sheen of ice on the grass. Everything has been harvested from the market garden now except for the winter leeks, the black kale, and the carrots; we keep them in against the frost until their sugars turn them so sweet, they’re practically vegetable candy. Heavenly.

In the meantime, the kitchen is a mess of canning jars, beeswax for candlemaking that needs to be washed free of remaining honey, herbs drying, and winter squash curing. We love the seasonal mess and productivity, but we’re also pleased as punch to see the jars filled and lined up on the shelves against the cold months.

Lanterns at dusk in the memory garden

And it’s the season of light – how it ages, how reluctant we are to see it go. In the early dusk, we visit the forest memory garden by the cabin and light lanterns for meditation. Small votive flames burn long enough for us to take out memories, turn them over, and set them carefully down again in such a way that they don’t pull quite so hard. Memories, like gardens, need tending.

Here’s to going into the dark season with the fullness of summer behind us, friends, and still enough light to see the path by.

Looking Forward, Looking Back

What a season it’s been, friends!

We’re away from the farm for a handful of days to take part in a family wedding, and, ta-da, a blog post! Ironically, I often find that the only time I have to write about the farm is when I’m not working it. When we’re on the land, we’re working, sunup to sundown. Travel affords us a chance to sit back and reflect on the whirlwind we’ve just stepped away from.

Like so many folks across the Canadian Prairies, we had a very changeable summer. The weather went from an early spring to a hot summer, to rain, to early cold. Nights are hovering around 5C now, just above frost, and the geese and sandhill cranes are already massing to leave. What?! When did that happen?

We spent the summer improving the market garden, extending the beds for next year’s flower farm, building additional patios around the cabin, and working on the road and the pond. Each improvement felt like a satisfying way of deepening our commitment to this place and to our future goals as we work with the land.

As the season turns, we’re already beginning the harvest. Preserving, which has occurred in small batches during the summer, is kicking into high gear: dilly beans! Dill pickles! Spicy carrots! Beets are being harvested for soup, potatoes for the cellar, and kale and carrots are turning into different vegetables altogether as their sugars heighten during the cold nights. We’ll enjoy them through the shortening autumn days in all sorts of comfort foods.

Fall is the time we put up our food for the winter, which in northern Canada can last seven months. We can, freeze, and dry just about all of our vegetables for the dark months so that we don’t need to buy in much. It’s incredibly reassuring to be able to turn to the cellar on the coldest -50C nights of dark and windchill, grab a jar of canned garden soup, and pop the top to scents of summer. Plus, it really helps the wallet while we’re scrimping and saving every penny for the coming year’s projects.

Fall is also the time we finish bucking up the wood we felled and stored during the previous year. We’ve had loads of beautiful poplar, tamarack, and birch curing under cover, and now is the time to make sure everything is split down and stacked for the long winter. We heat only with wood, and with many nights hitting -50C (-58F) with windchill, we really need a good woodpile! Plus, chopping and stacking wood is amazing meditation, as well as the instant gratification of a stack done right.

Finally, we’ll bundle up our bees for the cold, dark months ahead. The hives are insulated and roped together for additional warmth, and then all we can do is sit back, visit the girls during the cold months to listen at the hive entrances for life, and keep the ice off the hives as best we can. The bees are left with 100 pounds of their own honey each winter, as they’ll have to last seven month on their own before we can open up the hives to give them additional food in the spring. We’re especially excited for our Blue Hive, which has a strong queen and some beautifully calm bees. We’re hoping to do some splits off her hive in the coming season.

To round off the summer, we thought we’d share some images from our garden as it moves toward harvest. Here’s to you, friends, and your own home places as you turn the season on the land you love.

Tending the lovely ladies of Larch Grove, our small (but growing) apiary of four hives.

The perennial garden by the patio really came into its own this summer and provided a beautiful backdrop for farm visits.

Sharing the farm with friends, particularly young ones learning to garden, is a highlight of every summer.

Our garden is in a pocket of Zone 1 (Zone 2 with good shelter belts), so cherries have always seemed beyond our reach. This summer, though, the sour cherry trees taught us that they are hardy things indeed! Crimson Passion cherries made amazing pie.

We trialed dahlias for the first time this summer in our cold garden, and they worked magically well. We’re looking forward to planting them next year, too!

The pond filled up and is ready for landscaping next spring. It proved a favourite bathing spot for the moose!

Last summer, we sledgehammered apart the 1970s truck trailer we lived in for our first four years at the farm, and built this cook shed in its place. We finished it off this summer and installed the master controller of Larch Grove Farm: our Field Notes board to keep things organized!

We hauled 44 tonnes of road crush in the Vermont cart to lay new patios and top up our road by the cabin. Great workout, and there is something incredibly satisfying about the clean new road bed.

The harvest is beginning to come in, and it’s a beauty. It’s good to know that farm food will be nourishing us, our families, and our friends this winter.

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