Sunday, May 27, 2012

Winter Lingers On - Plants Can't Wait

As some of you might know, I have the most northernly greenhouse in Quebec, and one of two (to the best of my ken) north of Kuujjuaq.

All winter long I have been planning a second greenhouse for warmth-loving plants like tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, etc.  To make sure I had seedlings ready to transplant, I began some of my seeds as early as April 8, giving them at least two months in my bedroom nursery to grow large enough to put out. And grow they did - profusely.  My bedroom looked like a scene from the movie Jumanji, with vines and foliage spreading out every where.

I thought I could plant in the greenhouse I built last year in mid-May, but the temperature at night is still below freezing, much below freezing.  But keeping them inside wasn't much of an option either since they were getting far too large for their peat pots.

The best I could come up with was to build a greenhouse inside my greenhouse, and blow some heat underneath like a tunnel.

Today I planted my first seedlings, robust vegetables such as brussel sprouts, kale, lettuce and bok choy.  I could hear the corn snow hitting the plastic skin of the greenhouse as a snow squall passed through as I was planting.


And here is my internal greenhouse.


I'll only know tomorrow morning if I made the right choice.  Tune in later for an update.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Greenhouse Results from 2011

Before talking about my plans and results for this year, I feel I should summarize what happened in the greenhouse last summer.

Basically, any leaf crop grew really well - lettuce, bok choy, spinach, napa cabbage.  Also, they seemed to grown much faster than what I remember from my outdoor gardening in Montreal.

Root crops had mixed results.  Radishes flourished, but they will do so almost anywhere given their very short planting-to-harvest period.  My turnips (rutabaga) did not fare so well, almost all their energy went into foliage rather than root development.  Beets fell somewhere in between - I was able to get only one meal from them. Perhaps there's a local market for baby beets, but once you've peeled the skin off there's hardly anything left.

Peas grew really well, but I was unable to entice any bumble bees into greenhouse, so no pod set.  I've since watched a number of Youtube videos on pollinating plants by hand, so this is the route I'll take this year with anything that needs it.  Somehow, though, I feel it's something best done in a back alley for money by someone else.

Finally - flowers.  They went nowhere, slowly.  I never really paid close attention to the seed packets, but flowers need a really long lead time in order to flower before the hard frost sets in.  Definitely something to start in March inside the house.

From front to back: spinach, radishes almost going to seed, turnip, bok choy and napa cabbage.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Last Year's Greenhouse Build

After the children and dog's ravaged the tubs I planted outdoors in 2010, I realized that I had to build a greenhouse with a lock on it.

My design measures 22' x 10', and is made with 2" x 6" pine, 6 mil poly, and 3/8" plywood braces.  The general idea was to do away with conventional walls and make the whole thing out of rafters which are attached to the base plate.

All I had to work with was a skill saw and a small Black and Decker table.  Personally, I think it came out very well all things considering (i.e. so-called "helpers" who magically disappeared at the mere site of me going to the back yard.

The greenhouse is still standing despite a stormy winter (110 kph winds, minus 40 C temperatures), even the poly, which I did not expect.

Here are a couple of pictures from the construction phase last summer:



Tuesday, May 08, 2012

The Cost Of Thinking Has Just Gone Up

The Royal Canadian Mint just announced the striking of its last penny.  Within the past two decades we got rid of the paper one-dollar and two-dollar bills, and there is some talk of converting our five-dollar bill into a coin (the "gooney"?).  Our rag-content bills are being polymerized - I felt one of the new $50-dollar bills and had the urge to fold it in half and blow on the edge to make a farting sound.

Personally, I'd be glad to do away with cash (in whatever form) all together - this way my wife and kids can't go through my pockets to my perpetual impoverishment.

A nickel for your thoughts?

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Chasing the Elusive Tundra Radish

I know that for most of you, it is only a radish, one of the most pedestrian of vegetables.

For me it is my pride and joy - the first vegetable I have ever produced (my children notwithstanding) up here north of sixty.

In my other life I had a large backyard garden which I loved.  From March onwards each year I spent many a late night consulting seed catalogues, drafting layouts and propagating seeds for those plants needing a head start in the relative tropical Montreal climate.  Then came the outdoor work - tidying up, fertilizing, rototilling, planting seeds, planting transplants . . .

After that most of the work was done except for weeding, making sure the cut worms and Colorado potato beetles didn't get my offspring, and watering a bit during hot spells.

I was always successful in most part (except for beets which rarely co-operated).  The fall was spent in pickling and freezing, and a good sized portion of my vegetable needs were filled for the balance of the year before taking out stakes, pulling old plants and generally putting the garden to bed.

But I tell you, I have never had the pride and sheer sense of accomplishment of that first radish from last year.  It was simply the perfect radish - looked great, tangy tasting but not too strong, no splits, and colours borrowed from the Dutch masters.

So I have decided to resurrect my old blog, do some entries on my efforts for 2012 and fill you in on what happened in the greenhouse last year.  And if you behave yourselves, I might even insert a few rants and reminiscences from my, er, salad days.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Patient in Recovery


This picture, courtesy of the Université de Montréal veterinarian clinic in St-Hyacinthe, shows the snowy owl in rehab mode. Those eyes, beautiful on a computer screen, are absolutely mesmerizing in person.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Owlet Saga Continues

So I had a dilemma. No one likes to be cruel even if it is with the best of intentions. On the other hand, how could you put an animal down which had gone through such a gruesome ordeal and seems otherwise healthy?

I phoned Steven Walker who was the first on the scene at the accident to get his take on it. He too couldn't bear to have the owl euthanized if it was going to be viable, but no one can see into the future, and we had veterinary advice as to what a likely outcome would be. Given that the owl's odds of having survived the prop strike were astronomical, we decided to proceed with the operation and see if its luck would hold.

I left a message on the vet's answering machine, and he got back to me shortly saying that he would proceed with the operation, but since it was not going to be taken in by the rescue centre I would be responsible for all costs. The estimate is roughly $2,000.

Having gone this far with the creature, I was not going to let a human preoccupation with finances deter me. Steven and I are going to set up a non-profit to care for the owl, which could quite possibly outlive me. More on this, and a plea for donations, later.

The owl had its operation, and came through ok. Since it had a broken mandible, it was being fed by a tube and was putting on weight, a positive sign. We still have no idea how the bird will react to having only one wing, so we have to play the waiting game. But so far, so good.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Update On Rescued Snowy Owl

Sorry to leave you guys up in the air about the fate of the snowy owl introduced below, but I have been very busy as of late.

So let me pick up where I left off.

I drove to St-Hyacinthe and finally located the veterinarian centre of the Université de Montréal after a 90 minute search for its sanctuary, which was closed for the season. Upon finally arriving they took the owl and I over to a clinic and did a preliminary inspection on it while awaiting the head of the centre, Dr. Guy Fitzgérald. I learned many things about owls during the intervening minutes: did you know, for example, that snowy owls are virtually blind in the dark? All my life I had laboured under the misapprehension that they had super infrared vision or something which would allow them to spot a lemming two miles off under a starless sky.

Instead, it is their hearing which is incredible, and able to vector in on the scratching of vermin on the snow or grass.

In time, the head doctor arrived with a group of interns. Donning elbow-length rawhide gloves, they covered the bird with a towel and began their inspection. The owl, they confirmed, would need an amputation to remove the damaged wing, and they also determined that it would need to have a broken mandible repaired if it was going to eat.

They also discovered that the owl was a male. This was not a shock to me but would have some bearing on the centre's willingness to rehabilitate the bird. You see, males need two wings if they are going to inseminate a female. Here is a link to a YouTube if you need a picture to grasp the concept.

The veterinarian gravely pronounced we should consider euthenasia: not only was the male owl of little use for display, adoption or reproduction, but it's quality of life might be too compromised - it appears that birds can suffer from phantom limb syndrome and continually flop around on the floor trying to get airborne.

This was not what I wanted to hear, and since this rescue was very much of a team effort I had to speak with Steven Walker first before coming to a conclusion.

It was a very pensive drive back to Montréal, my mind trying to balance the rescue of a bird which so miraculously survived a propellor strike with the possibility of condemning it to a cruel existence.

I will continue the story shortly.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Through The Wringer

Last Tuesday a Dash 8 aircraft was on its final approach to Salluit airport. There was a flock of snowy owls just off the end of the runway, and the noise of the engines' roar caused them to fly off in different directions. Unfortunately for this young owl, it flew up directly into a prop, did two full rotations and was spit out.

Air Inuit employee Steven Walker went out to clean up the mess, and to his (and everyone else's) amazement, the bird was still alive, although its left wing was severed at the elbow. Being a kindly soul, he took the owlet down to his house and placed it in a shack to see if it would survive the night.

The following day while in Montreal I learned of the incident, and phoned Steve to see if I could be of any help. The bird was still very much alive, but it was obvious that it would need some veterinarian treatment if it was to live much longer.

After some research I was able to find a veterinarian centre in St-Hyacinthe operated by the Université de Montréal that had a specialization with birds of prey. As well, they have a sanctuary for hawks, vultures, falcons and owls which could not be returned to nature due to injury. The management of Air Inuit became involved and arranged for the shipment of the bird down to Montreal.

So on Thursday night, after postponing my return back north, I picked up a cardboard box at the Air Inuit cargo depot. Peering in through the holes carved through the sides, I saw the most beautiful golden eyes imaginable. They were alert and seemingly locked onto my face in a silent assessment of my intentions. I drove it to my hotel room to rest overnight before the trip to the veterinarian centre.

I lifted the lid of the box which I had placed on the night table beside my bed, and the owl continued its gaze at me, with its beak open in a defensive posture. Deciding that the bird had had enough, I cued up some looped snow owl calls on my computer, and went out for an hour or two.

When I returned to the room, it was no longer in the box; rather, it had hopped its way over to the computer and seemed to be comforted by the soft hooting of its brethren. I force fed the bird some water, and left it to settle in wherever it wanted to for the night. I would wake up many times that night, and found the owlet's golden eyes fixed on me each time.

This is going to be a long story, so I'll break off the post here and relate the ups and downs of the trip to the vet later.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Northern Gardening - P-Day

Having seen that today is the new moon (supposedly the most optimal for planting root vegetables) and googling many an ancient Druidic fertility incantation I proceeded to sew the seeds of what I hope won't be my frustration. After all, I could have sown almost a month ago, so I have missed a lot of the potential growing season.

My choice of seeds was limited to what I bought years ago and never got around to planting. I feel that hardy root vegetables and fast growing crops will do best given the circumstances. Consequently I have chosen decidely unsexy vegetables for this year - rutabagas (indestructible), beets (never had much luck with them), leaf lettuce and green onions for the bathtubs. For the washing machine drum I have dared to plant sugar snap peas, mainly because it is close to the wall of my shack and I can rig something for them to climb on in the lee of the prevailing wind.

To even further strengthen my odds of something to poke up eventually through the soil, I used the most up-to-date gardening techniques and stripped down to my sandals. And proceeded to sow my seed. Sorry, no money shot!

I also planted a few flower seeds which my son brought back from Montreal. I really don't know what will happen, but since this is experimental, it's all good.

After purloining a garden hose from my employer someone and borrowing a nozzle, I watered the beds and covered them with polyethylene sheeting I "found" somewhere. This is to keep the heat and moisture in, as well as deterring the neighbourhood urchins from playing in the beds.


I now realize that the distance between the top of the soil and the plastic cover is only about 2", so I figure I have about 14 days to figure out a way of tenting the cover so the plants will head room to grow.

Any of you DYI-ers out there with some ideas?

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Northern Gardening - Adding the Soil

I had about 10 cubic yards of natural top soil delivered to my side yard, and set out cleaning it of rocks and gravel before transporting it by 10 gallon pail over to the tubs. Even with my best efforts, I had to spend about 20 minutes picking out smaller stones by hand for each pailful I added. This small picture gives you an idea of the stony nature of our very best topsoil.

Once the three bathtubs were full (and a washing machine drum) I did a further sifting by hand using a plastic sieve used for pasta. The local golfers looked upon this is the ultimate proof that yours truly had utterly lost it, and I myself felt I looked like I was panning for gold in rusty bathtubs out back of the house. Eventually, though, I had about 3 inches of soil which was pretty free of any stone larger than a piece of kitty litter.

I still felt that there was not enough organic matter in the soil, and not having access to any compost or fertilizer, I broke with my principles and bought three 15-pound bags of top soil from the local co-op, which I mixed in with the top of the natural soil with a rake. The photo shows the contrast between the potting soil and what I got locally.

The washing machine drum with the rock and plywood on top is the beginning of what I hope will be a compost pile. In the past I've had little luck in this respect, with the vegetable matter becoming mummified rather than rotting and breaking down. But having learned that in Iqaluit they were able to get a pile above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, I'm going to give it another go. I think I have to keep it more moist.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Northern Gardening - Part II

Before I go any further, you have to understand that I am a cheap SOB. I feel if I have to invest in costly greenhouse equipment, heating, ventilation, etc. I will have only succeeded in indulging in a very expensive hobby. My guiding principle in this project (and in life) is that it is far better to beg, borrow, steal and scrounge than to put much capital into what is basically a pilot project.

The next step is to cover the gravel with some sand, basically to avoid putting too much topsoil into each tub, but also to promote some additional drainage. In the still of this morning I appropriated about fifteen 10-gallon paint cans full from our municipal winter stockpile - it's already pre-sifted and without too much gravel.


For those of you who have never visited Salluit, this picture shows a panoramic view of the municipal golf course in front of the fuel tanks.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Northern Gardening - Part 1

Every spring I tell myself, Nanuk, you're going to plant some vegetable seeds this year. I actually did try planting directly into the ground in around 1998, but the soil (such as it is) is too cold to take the plants much beyond the seed leaf stage. Our soil, by the way, can support vegetation, but the species have to be adapted to growing in a very thin layer (less than an inch, usually) of arable soil, and in cold and windy conditions. For this reason most of our northern flora lies very low to the ground and is much smaller in terms of flower and fruit size.

This year, however, a pile of top soil was scraped from bedrock to allow the pouring of a concrete slab for a garage. The sight of this brown loamy matter sitting in a huge accessible pile spurred me on to planning a small, above ground garden.

My first step was to pick up three scrap bath tubs from our dump, along with a couple of washing machine drums. This, I hope, will allow the soil to heat up and spur growth above ground. I then picked up 1"-3" gravel from a local quarry and transported it back home in 10 gallon paint cans. This I have spread out in a 3" layer on the bottom of each tub for drainage.

I know that the rusted bathtubs look crappy, but I have a plan in mind. You'll just have to be patient.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Any Takers??

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Why My Dog Looks Confused All The Time

Excellent article, even if it does come from Cracked Magazine (it's still around???). For those of you who are contemplating getting a pooch, I highly recommend this:

http://www.cracked.com/article_18551_6-well-intentioned-ways-youre-ruining-your-dog.html